When do Alameda police use force?

When do Alameda police use force?

Michele Ellson
Alameda police

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.”


Submitted by Alan Pomeroy (not verified) on Thu, May 28, 2015

I'm surprised that the use of force authority as defined above is based solely on the subject's behavior. Where does the reason for the encounter between the citizen and the officer enter into the calculation? For example, would an officer's decision to use force or not be different for a traffic stop than it would be for an armed robbery. We could all understand the need in an armed robbery where there is a clear threat to the community. But how far could a "behavioral" based force assessment escalate in an attempted traffic stop before the choice of just letting the subject go would be the more reasonable response from the officer?

Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Thu, May 28, 2015

Alan, I am no expert but I believe that traffic stops can put officers in contact with potentially violent or non-compliant folks of all kinds, including but not limited bank robbers (your example).

The officer has no way of knowing exactly what he is facing or why they are not cooperative. I would imagine non-cooperating with even a trivial traffic stop gives cops heightened concern.

Frankly, one would have to be a complete idiot to give a cop the slightest reason to apply force... not that cops are always right, but who wants to wrestle with one?

Submitted by David (not verified) on Thu, May 28, 2015

Alan - let's look at it from the other end of the spectrum. Armed robbery suspect who is compliant. Should an officer use maximum force - baton strikes, pepper spray, lethal force(?) - on that compliant suspect because it's an armed robbery call?

Submitted by ac (not verified) on Thu, May 28, 2015

Simple. Doesn't matter who or what the reason is anywhere anytime when driving, walking or on any wheeled contrivance. When a cop asks you to stop, for any lawful reason, you comply. Never give them reason to get thier hackles up. If you look shady or shifty, like if you got a record, a parolee, caught with illegal substances, stolen property or weapons, they will be ready to take measures to protect the public safety. Cooperate and comply. If you come clean with no resistance or trouble, likely you'd be let go on your way.

Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Thu, May 28, 2015
Submitted by Shivaun Nestor (not verified) on Sun, May 31, 2015

I am pleased to see such reasonable and life-saving policies. My own experience with the Alameda police have always been positive, even during a call made when a close friend was having a mental breakdown. That said, I have had Black male friends who have been stopped in Alameda for "driving while black." While these incidents occurred some time ago, and I hope that attitudes "on island" have improved since then, especially as Alameda becomes more diverse, I think that what is missing from this report is an ethnic breakdown of the use of force.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Sun, May 31, 2015

Hi Shivaun: I thought someone might ask that question, so I did request the numbers. Breakdown of the race/ethnicity of subjects in reported use of force incidents between 2010-14:

White: 56
African American: 35
Latino: 26
Asian: 9
Other: 16

Some 122 of subjects were male, 19 were female.

Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Sun, May 31, 2015
Submitted by Michele Ellson on Sun, May 31, 2015

Hi Steve: I think arrestee data may provide a stronger point of comparison than census.

Submitted by nora (not verified) on Mon, Jun 1, 2015

The police are supposed to protect and serve all citizens, the "complete idiots" as well as the geniuses. I would argue that they have a greater duty to use care when encountering someone too stupid or disturbed to follow their instructions, than to assume such a person is a greater threat to their safety and overreact with force.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Wed, Jun 10, 2015

Hey Shivaun and Steve: Just wanted to follow up to let you know I've asked APD for the breakdown of their arrest stats mentioned earlier. I'll update as soon as those come in.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Fri, Jun 12, 2015

Hey Shivaun and Steve: Just got the race/ethnicity breakdown of arrests from APD. Here's the arrest info and use of force comparison for 2010-14 (with raw numbers so folks can check my math):

White: 40 percent of force incidents (56/141), 38 percent of arrests (4,832 of 12,857).

African American: 25 percent of force incidents (35/141), 28 percent of arrests (3,575 of 12,857).

Latino: 18 percent of force incidents (26/141), 18 percent of arrests (2,354 of 12,857).

Asian: 6 percent of force incidents (9/141), 10 percent of arrests (1,283 of 12,857).

Other: 11 percent of force incidents (16/141), 6 percent of arrests (813 of 12,857).

This number is a little smaller than the one in the graphic above because it omits youth arrests that have been expunged from their records.

Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Sat, Jun 13, 2015

Thank you, Michele. More questions arise from this data. While it appears that all groups of arrestees are equally likely to experience police use of force, African Americans, who are 6.4 percent of the population are 28 percent of those arrested. Using census data alone, someone who is African American is over four times as likely to be arrested in Alameda than than the general population and is six times more likely to be arrested than someone who is White.

There are several possibilities that would explain this. Ever since moving to Alameda, almost 20 years ago, I have heard that much of the crime committed in Alameda is committed by outsiders. Is that true? What percentage of those arrested in Alameda are not Alameda residents?

Every question raises more questions. That is how it should be in an open and democratic society. The purpose is not to find fault, but to make things better and more just.