LA Sheriffs: There’s No ‘Safe’ Use of Police Force

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Montreal police take down a demonstrator. Photo by Yannick Gingras via Flickr

Deputy sheriffs and police officers across the country welcome real solutions that will allow them to end potential violent situations without injury.  However, many law enforcement professionals also oppose un-vetted “solutions” not based on reality.

Here’s one example: The “Guiding Principles on the Use of Force,” published last March by the Police Executive Research Foundation (PERF).  Many of the 30 “principles” proposed by PERF are dangerous, were adopted without critical scrutiny, and therefore are opposed by sheriffs, chiefs of police and rank-and-file law enforcement.

One PERF “principle,” for instance, calls for law enforcement officers to ask themselves before employing force: “How would the general public view the action we took?”

When he was serving as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), Bill Bratton observed that the use of force by police is never pretty—even if the tactics used effectively diffuse a situation.  Bratton, who ended his 30-year career in law enforcement when he retired last month as commissioner of the New York Police Department, said that implementing standards which substitute effective tactics to appease what might be the public perception of what “looks good” is absurd and dangerous.

Other PERF-suggested principles likewise fail to reflect the reality of what actually occurs daily in the field, such as the proposal that law enforcement agencies replace the  Supreme Court’s test of “objective reasonableness” (Graham v. Connor)  with an undefined “moral” standard.

But there is a common denominator for judging “reasonable use of force” whether it is applied in California, Virginia, New York or anywhere else in the country.

The fact that some departments may adopt more restrictive rules than Graham v. Connor does not alter the framework for  determining the “reasonableness” of police use of force for Fourth Amendment purposes.  In short, whether a peace officer’s use of force is “reasonable” for the purposes of criminal charges or even civil liability under the Fourth Amendment is measured against  a nationwide standard of what is reasonable force—not against a standard that PERF advocates or what an individual department deems appropriate.

Likewise, PERF suggests  that law enforcement only use force that is “safe” and never do anything to “escalate” the situation.

The reality is, there is no use of force that is “safe.”

When danger posed by a suspect increases because a person fails to comply with lawful orders, law enforcement is obligated to “escalate” to resolve the situation.

The common thread running through PERF’s principles is the idea that the actions of a suspect are irrelevant, and that only the reaction of law enforcement to a suspect’s actions are to be considered.

These principles appear to us to reflect a lack of honest discussion with law enforcement on the front lines.  No dissent was allowed at the conference where they were discussed, and critical comments afterward were simply ignored.

Former LAPD Captain Greg Myer, a PERF member, commented that misstatements by PERF regarding knife-wielding suspects and officer-involved shootings after failed Taser deployments led him to question “if anybody who has actually faced deadly threats was involved in the drafting of the document.”

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times editorial board suggested law enforcement engage in meaningful discussion of PERF standards and not reject them out of hand.  To that end, on numerous occasions, we invited PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler to Los Angeles to engage in a robust discussion about their principles before rank-and-file law enforcement representatives.

After all, what better way to have them accepted than to have an in-depth explanation of them by the person credited as being the driving force behind their adoption?

Because of their national campaign for the new standards, we thought PERF had enough confidence in its proposal to welcome the opportunity to discuss and debate that standard in a robust discussion with rank and file peace officers.

George Hofstetter

George Hofstetter

We were wrong! Unfortunately, Mr. Wexler refused the invitation to discuss these principles.

Law enforcement professionals welcome a full-throated discussion on police use of force and de-escalation. Why can’t the same be said of PERF?

George Hofstetter is the president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs An earlier version of this essay appeared in American Police Beat online.



One thought on “LA Sheriffs: There’s No ‘Safe’ Use of Police Force

  1. Pingback: PERF Presses De-Escalation With Skeptical Police Chiefs | The Crime Report

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