Who would have thought that American police chiefs would have a better position on officer use-of-force than the U.S. Supreme Court?
Well, it’s happening.
The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a professional association of chiefs and police managers, last week released a policy paper containing 30 “Guiding Principles” that members should adopt on the use of force, which it said would hold police to a “higher standard” than the legal requirement of the Court’s 1989 ruling in Graham v. Connor.
That ruling, said PERF, “does not provide police with sufficient guidance on use of force.”
More specifically, PERF said police departments should adopt policies and training “based on sound tactics, consideration of whether the use of force was proportional to the threat, and the sanctity of human life.”
The Graham v. Connor decision was more ambiguous. It held that force is justified when it is “objectively reasonable” under the immediate circumstances. Over the years, courts have consistently interpreted that phrase to give the police officer the benefit of the doubt. If an officer could reasonably see a threat in a situation, force is justified.
Pundits have labeled many force incidents “lawful but awful.” That is to say, they were justified by the Court, but utterly unreasonable by common-sense standards of decency and proper police conduct.
Lost in the Court’s reasoning is the idea that police use-of-force should be a last resort, justified only in the most extreme situations where there is an imminent threat to the life of the officer or someone else. And it gives no consideration to alternative steps an officer could have taken to resolve the incident without force, or what tactics the officer could have taken earlier in the encounter that might have avoided a confrontation.
The PERF policy paper is a breath of fresh air in the context of the current national police crisis. It moves police thinking beyond the idea of doing simply what is lawful, and instead aspires to doing the best that is possible—best for the community and best for the police themselves.
And it also makes clear that the first step is up to the police themselves.
Even before, the guidelines are listed, the paper declares: “The policy changes must be backed up with thorough, integrated retraining of all officers.”
The police chiefs who are members of PERF have been moving in a very positive direction for several years.
PERF issued a challenging critique of police use-of-force training last August. In 2012 it issued an outstanding report on the de-escalation of encounters with citizens. Meanwhile, the report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing , released last year, embraced the same new ideas.
The new PERF policy paper also includes a path-breaking recommendation on the “Duty to Intervene,” declaring that “officers need to prevent other officers from using excessive force.”
In recent years, some police departments have adopted policies requiring officers to report to supervisors uses of force by other officers. That policy has been regarded as perhaps the first significant step toward breaking down the traditional “blue wall” or “code of silence” under which cops never reported on other cops. The requirement that officers act to stop incidents of unnecessary force definitely takes “policing to a higher standard.”
Think about the infamous 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. A number of officers were present at that incident, including the four who were eventually charged in connection with the beating (three were acquitted). Not one stepped forward to stop the beating. That included sergeants who have a duty to effectively supervise officers at such incidents and step in stop inappropriate or unlawful conduct.
Since the tragic events surrounding the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, the country has experienced a seemingly endless serious of police crises involving the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of the police.
The nation is searching for ways to end this crisis. The PERF policy paper, informed by experience and good judgment about policing, is the best roadmap we have.
Samuel Walker is Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and the author of 14 books on policing, civil liberties and crime police. He welcomes comments from readers.