When do Alameda police use force?
When do Alameda police use force?
A spate of deadly police shootings in cities across the country – and the city’s recent settlement of an excessive force case here at home – have prompted questions about when and how police use force.
The answers? Rarely. And, it depends.
Alameda police used force during one out of every hundred arrests between 2010 and 2014, data provided by the department show. And the department’s chief said that it has systems in place to train and guide officers in their use of force and to monitor whether officers used too much force during a call.
“Use of force is not something that is casually looked upon at the police department,” Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri said. “There’s a huge responsibility that goes with the powers that we’re given. We don’t take that lightly.”
Still, he said, officers need to be given the discretion to decide whether force is needed and if so, what type is needed, to overcome resistance and control situations that could result in injuries to the officer or a member of the public.
“There are certain things that you try to do on every arrest. But when you’re talking about the decision to use force, every single call is different,” Rolleri said.
A police officer’s right to use “reasonable force” to effect an arrest, prevent an escape or overcome resistance is enshrined in both federal and state law. A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions spells out the meaning of “reasonable force” in more specific detail.
“Broadly speaking, the use of force by law enforcement officers becomes necessary and is permitted under specific circumstances, such as in self-defense or in defense of another individual or group,” the National Institute of Justice, a federal agency, says on its website.
A 2008 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of 60,000 police contacts across the country found that 1.4 percent of the subjects of those contacts had force used or threatened against them.
Court rulings in excessive force cases are typically based on what an officer knew as an incident was taking place, and not information gathered after the fact, Rolleri said. Ultimately, he said, officers must often make split-second decisions about whether to use force to control subjects and also, what kind of force to use, based on the unique details of every situation.
Some departments’ policies are based on a use of force continuum that spells out the types of force an officer may consider based on a suspect’s behavior. For example, the Las Vegas police department’s use of force policy contains a use of force model that spells out options for dealing with subjects whose level of resistance ranges from compliant to “aggravated aggressive.”
The Las Vegas department’s policy – which offers the model as a guideline – recommends that officers facing compliant subjects rely on their presence, verbal communication, empty-hand tactics and handcuffs to control them; recommended options for officers facing aggressive subjects include a baton, a dog, pepper spray or a shotgun that fires pellet-filled beanbags.
Rolleri said Alameda police rely on everything from their physical presence and verbal commands to control holds like wrist locks, striking a suspect and use of a baton or pepper spray. The department’s policy also authorizes trained officers to use pain compliance techniques and a carotid control hold, which slows blood flow to the brain and can temporarily knock an aggressive suspect out. Alameda’s officers get quarterly, in-house training on defensive tactics.
“Ideally – if you have to use force you want it to be at a level that will overcome whatever the level of resistance,” he said.
Of the 34 use of force incidents reported in 2014, for example, 20 involved a control hold; 17, physical contact like a strike or kick; eight involved baton strikes; four, dogs; two, pepper spray; and one, a carotid hold, data offered by the department show (officers may use more than one method to control a subject during a single call). The department’s officers haven’t fired a shot at an arrest subject in five years, the data show.
The department’s seven-page policy, generated and updated by a company that specializes in creating them, offers guidelines for when different kinds of force and some specific techniques can be used, spells out factors for determining whether force is reasonable and spells out when medical help should be sought for subjects. It also details reporting procedures.
“What it provides us is a guideline, so we’re not sending officers out in the street with no direction on how and when to use force,” Rolleri said.
Alameda’s policy requires an officer’s supervisor to report any use of force. The reports are reviewed by the department’s internal affairs sergeant and by Rolleri. They look at whether an officer’s use of force was appropriate, whether more training or better equipment are needed, whether the appropriate follow up was done and whether an officer’s use of force puts the city at risk of a lawsuit.
If an officer is found to have used force that’s outside the bounds of the department’s policy, he or she could face discipline that ranges from a report in their personnel file to suspension or termination, he said.
Of the 141 times officers documented uses of force between 2010 and 2014, the department received 71 complaints, 34 of which were sustained. It has been named in five excessive force and false arrest lawsuits over the past three years; two were settled, one was dismissed and two are pending.
The department hasn’t formally tracked force complaints by officer; due to its small size, Rolleri said, an officer involved in large number of force incidents would be easy to spot. But that’s about to change, as the department seeks out new tools for reducing its use of force and tracking incidents.
Rolleri said he’s ordered software to track force incidents and the officers involved.
“It has built in features that will give us a red flag,” he said.
The department is also considering adding Tasers to its arsenal of less-than-lethal force options, Rolleri said.
On Tuesday, he’ll ask the City Council for about $425,000 to purchase 80 body cameras and a system to manage the video they record, a move that he said could reduce officers’ use of force.
“More often than not, (the cameras are) going to be able to show the public in certain circumstances when officers are acting professionally versus not professionally,” he said. “People have a tendency to check themselves when they are being taped.”