Spokane police will now count neck restraints, pepper spray, tear gas and batons as uses of force and require a new Use of Force Review Board to review incidents monthly.
The policy changes, which went into effect Jan. 1, are part of a 2014 review by the Department of Justice. The review did not find a pattern of excessive use of force or biased application, but many recommendations suggested use-of-force incidents were not being well-documented.
“We don’t have a use-of-force problem,” said Lt. Kevin King, who oversees training. “We have a problem documenting things.”
Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice, said he supported the changes, which would give people a better idea of when and why force is used.
“If we get a picture of everything that’s going on, we’ll have a better understanding of how many were occurring and under what circumstances,” he said.
Spokane police have two types of neck restraints, one of which is designed to render a suspect unconscious by temporarily restricting blood flow to the brain. Previous policy only required officers to report a neck restraint if it caused someone to become unconscious. Now, the lower-level restraint will be counted as well.
King said the neck restraint technique came under “intense scrutiny” by the Department of Justice following the 2014 death of Eric Garner, a New York man who died after police applied a chokehold that cut off oxygen to his brain. A neck restraint, when properly applied, does not cut off oxygen and is safe to use, he said.
“It’s a controversial issue, I think it’s unreasonably so,” King said. Documenting effective uses of neck restraints will help show the effectiveness of the technique, he said.
The new policies also require a use-of-force report when officers point a firearm at someone while giving them instructions – a technique called “draw and direct.” Police have been counting those incidents as uses of force since 2013, but that change is now officially part of department policy.
Eichstaedt and members of the police ombudsman commission have previously said the department should track when officers draw guns, even without pointing them at someone. That data would help people understand when and how often officers draw their weapons, Eichstaedt said.
King said the department discussed changing the policy but decided against it, in part because it would be cumbersome to write a full use-of-force report every time an officer draws a gun.
Previous department policy required all officers to carry pepper spray and a baton, while a Taser was optional. Now, officers can carry any two of the three. King said the change was made because officers should be able to carry the weapons they prefer.
Use-of-force incidents are currently reviewed by an officer’s chain of command, and may be forwarded to Internal Affairs for investigation if someone in that chain believes an officer violated department policy. The new Use of Force Review Board will complement that process by making recommendations about training, equipment and policies.
The board, with King as chairman, will meet monthly to review incidents and will debrief all neck restraints designed to render someone unconscious individually.
Another policy change makes the chair of the Deadly Force Review Board responsible for documenting the progress of recommendations and informing the Office of Professional Accountability within six months. That change came because recommendations from the board sometimes slipped through the cracks.
“Quite often, things would drop that should be followed up on,” King said.
Sgt. Shawn Kendall, who works at the police training center, said the changes would improve documentation, but cautioned people to avoid comparing old use-of-force numbers with new totals that come out this year.
Because the changes mean more types of force will be counted, “our use of force is going to go up,” he said.
This article has been updated to clarify that a neck restraint restricts blood flow to the brain, but does not cut it off completely.