Confronting deadly force
The report by the Linden Commission of Inquiry has generated a lot of national interest recently – and rightly so. Principal among the areas of focus are the issues of the use of deadly force in Linden, and the compensation award.
There is no disputing that on a daily basis the police face situations that require tact and careful consideration of factors that are at times simple, or complex, depending on your point of view.
However, universal convention expects that force when used must be applied in direct proportion to the prevailing threat and deadly force should be the last option. In other words, the discretion that the police have to use deadly force when they deem appropriate is guided by policy and training, while intelligence information gives them a legal authority that no other profession has.
This is not to say that fatal errors of judgment do not occur from time to time, and which a subsequent review of events might unearth. In some places the scrutiny and the possibility of civil litigation which follow police deadly force encounters are enough to cause second guessing at a crucial moment.
One school of thought suggests that although policy and training with regard to deadly force might lead to positive change, these would “have little impact unless the organization’s culture and the attitude of leaders are explored.”
Johns Hopkins University’s Division of Public Safety Leadership identifies ten primary factors that affect use of force by police, community response to use of force, and liability; these all need to be considered when attempting change and include:
1. The environment in which officers work and officers’ perception of the environment in which they work;
2. Analysis and application of information;
3. Policy, procedure, law, and legal opinion;
4. Culture of the agency;
5. Leadership and supervision;
6. Selection and training of police officers;
7. Alternative responses, particularly the availability and use of less-than-lethal force;
8. Public trust, including assessing prior reaction to deadly force situations and media response;
9. Internal and external follow-up to deadly force incidents; and
Law Enforcement Consultant, Thomas Frazier in Deadly Force: Issues, Risks, Dilemmas, and Solutions posits that if there is a pattern or practice of excessive or improper use of force caused by “leadership, weak policy, inadequate or insufficient training, or fear”, technology will be of no use in what is essentially a human problem.
He further argues for the need of competent supervisors, and skilled officers who understand the community they serve and policy regarding the use of deadly force.
Interestingly, Frazier cautions that in many jurisdictions people in positions of influence pay far too little attention to issues such as the presence of police officers who are “paranoid about the level of danger that exists, or whose physical and emotional health is questionable”; these he sees as “a deadly force disaster waiting to happen.”
All is not lost, however, since Frazier asserts that police executives, police labour organizations, political leaders, business and industry, community organizations, the faith community, and others all have a vested interest and should play a role in affecting lasting change.
Moreover, he suggests the following ten strategies to reduce liability resulting from deadly force encounters:
1. Review deadly force and less-than-lethal force policies on an annual basis. Ensure that all employees are trained to policy. Having an employee sign that he or she read the policy does not negate the need for annual training. Annual audits of training records are imperative.
2. Audit your disciplinary investigations processes and results. Use trained internal or external auditors using validated audit protocols to determine accuracy, timeliness, and equity of internal investigations.
3. Meet with community leaders and special interest groups on a regular basis. Explain use of force policies and how force situations will be investigated. When an encounter occurs, notify the appropriate community leaders immediately and invite them to meet with department executives.
4. Establish a deadly force review team and procedure.
5. Establish clear dispatch protocol on matters related to force or potential force. Dispatching complete, appropriate information is essential to officer safety and defending the agency’s response during litigation.
6. Review your Field Training Officer program to ensure appropriate training officer selection, as well as modern evaluation standards that are based in community oriented policing principles.
7. Assess the quality of the agency’s selection and hiring practices to ensure that they do more than simply weed out unqualified applicants. It is important to demonstrate that the most qualified applicants are pursued and hired.
8. Assess the quality of the promotional process to ensure that it identifies candidates with the skills and background necessary to manage crises and guide others in performing their duties successfully. Implement supervisory training on managing deadly force encounters and investigations.
9. Identify performance measures for the agency’s successes and activities that go beyond simple statistics. Demonstrating the agency’s overall effectiveness establishes a position of strength in a liability situation. Statistical measures of effectiveness are easy to challenge in litigation.
10. Institute an officer performance tracking system, which identifies officers outside the norm of complaints, accidents, injuries, commendations, etc.
Editor, as I usually try to do, this is just one contribution of the many you no doubt receive aimed at helping move our premier law enforcement agency to a higher level of service and professionalism. In another letter I will be dealing with officer occupational safety and health issues.
Patrick E. Mentore