Study: More restrictive "use of force" policies could curb the epidemic of police violence

AP

The latest police killing in Tulsa, Oklahoma — where police fatally shot 40-year-old unarmed black man Terence Crutcher beside his stranded SUV on Friday — has added further fuel to the roiling debate about how to stop police brutality.

Part of the answer may be stunningly simple.

On Wednesday, the Police Use of Force Project — a branch of Campaign Zero, a civilian-led police reform campaign — released an analysis showing that police departments with policies to avoid deadly force end up killing suspects less frequently. 

The finding may seem intuitive, but it is the first wide-scale analysis to demonstrate the connection between differing "use of force" policies and the rate of police killings. And it raises the question: Why don't all police departments have similarly restrictive policies in place?

"Police departments with policies that place clear restrictions on when and how officers use force had significantly fewer police killings than those that did not have these limits in place," researchers found.

The analysis reviewed data from 91 of the 100 largest city police departments, which the project acquired under a Freedom of Information Act request. Those with the most restrictive guidelines governing when and how officers should use force — for instance, by urging them to de-escalate situations and imposing a continuum of force that starts with verbal commands, pepper spray and Tasers before proceeding to guns — had fewer officer-involved shootings per capita.

"In reviewing the use of force policies from cities across the country, we found that the bar for accountability is either low or non-existent with regard to how officers use any force, including deadly force," said DeRay McKesson, an activist who helped co-found the project. "The culture of policing is informed by the policies, practices, and laws that allow police officers to wield their power without oversight or accountability and it is important that Use Of Force policies in every police department reflect a clear commitment to the safety of citizens and consequences when these standards are not upheld."

Rates of killings in departments examined.  Campaign Zero

Researchers rated use of force policies under eight guidelines that former Department of Justice investigators consider best practices for avoiding civilian deaths. In addition to de-escalation and employing a continuum of force, does a department ban the use of choke or strangle holds? Does it require an officer to issue a warning before pulling the trigger? Does it allow for a fellow officer to intervene to stop another officer from pulling the trigger? Does a department require comprehensive reporting after an incident?

Based on those measures, researchers then looked at each city's rate of police-involved killings dating back to 2015 using databases compiled by the Guardian and the Washington Posttracking the numbers in killings per million.

Not one department in the analysis met all eight criteria, but those that met at least four had the fewest killings per capita — meeting four criteria appeared to be a threshold leading to a drop-off in deaths. 

Continuum of suggested actions before deadly force.  Campaign Zero

Despite the potentially life-saving potential of more restrictive policies, only 1 in 3 of the 100 largest city police forces in the United States have four or more of these policies in place: Washington, D.C.; St. Paul, Minnesota; and Miami are in that group. As a result, these cities experience a relatively low rate of around 6, 17, and 10 killings per million, respectively. By comparison, Orlando, Florida; Stockton, California; and Oklahoma City had among the worst rates — 25, 24, and 21 per million, respectively.

"Two years ago we didn't even have the data to know which police departments were killing people at higher rates than others and why," Samuel Sinyangwe, a policy analyst and co-founder of Campaign Zero, told Mic. "Now we can identify the key policies to prevent these killings."

Tulsa's police department met three of out of the eight criteria. It has a use of force continuum that limits the types of force that can used in specific situations; it bans the use of chokeholds and strangleholds; and it requires officers to issue a verbal warning before shooting, if possible. 

According to the Tulsa Police Department's 2014 annual report, officers should only use force when "force is necessary to discharge their duties, or to defend themselves or someone else from imminent danger."

The average police department in the study was much like Tulsa's, and had only adopted three of the eight policies identified as helping to limit the use of deadly force by officers. The implication here is that their use of force policy is too lax to reasonably prevent officer-involved shootings like the one that killed Crutcher.

The Tulsa Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

What's especially noteworthy is that stronger use of force policies aren't just good for public safety — they also keep officers out of harm's way. Officers in departments with more restrictive use of force policies are less likely to be assaulted or killed in the line of duty.

Officers killed in cities with restrictive deadly force policies.  Campaign Zero

That data debunks claims by some in law enforcement, like the LAPD union, that restricting use of force would strip officers of their ability to defend themselves in life-threatening situations.

"The public should care," Sinyangwe said of the study's results, "because these policies can save lives."