The Spokane Police Department updated its use-of-force policy last week, but officials say the update will not lead to major changes in training and department practices.
The update, released Oct. 4, includes a new section on de-escalation that encourages officers to use time and distance to prolong their decision-making process when it comes to use of force.
The new policy also requires officers to report ethical misconduct by fellow officers. Previous language suggested officers report misconduct but did not require they do so, said Police Ombudsman Bart Logue.
Logue said he believes the biggest change is a section that says deadly force may only be used “as a last resort.”
“That is a tremendous change that I am applauding,” Logue said.
The Office of the Police Ombudsman, which conducts independent civilian oversight of the police department, wrote recommendations for the policy based on a review of almost 100 de-escalation and use-of-force policies across the country.
In 2017, Logue wrote a letter to Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl asking him to add a definition of de-escalation to policy and to look to other departments to adjust their de-escalation best practices.
“We just wanted to do it in a methodical way that would make sense to police,” Logue said of the recommendations.
“In previous policy, the de-escalation piece didn’t exist at all,” Logue said.
A new section corrects that lack and states, “Police officers have been delegated the responsibility to protect life and property and apprehend criminal offenders. The Department is committed to accomplishing this mission with respect and a minimal reliance on the use of force by using rapport-building communication, crisis intervention, and de-escalation tactics before resorting to force, when circumstances permit.”
The Jan. 4 version of the manual mentions de-escalation nine times, while the Oct. 4 version mentions it 29 times.
However, just because something isn’t reflected in policy doesn’t mean it’s not a best practice in the department, Meidl said.
“There were certain things that we were doing that weren’t memorialized in our policy,” Meidl said.
The department participated in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Collaborative Reform Initiative for Technical Assistance under former Chief Frank Straub.
During that reform, the DOJ program noted SPD’s policy did not mirror what the de-escalation techniques used on the street, Meidl said.
SPD updated it’s policy on use of force after the reform program, but Meidl said it’s important to constantly be evaluating and updating policy.
“We as a law enforcement agency need to continue to evolve and be progressive,” Meidl said.
The department already does crisis intervention training among other de-escalation training, but the policy continued to differ from the best practices in place.
“I am one of those big believers that you train to your policy,” Meidl said. “It’s important for officers to make sure that they’re thinking through the different options that are made available to them that are now memorialized in policy.”
After Logue’s office complied research on the de-escalation tactics other agencies use, Meidl reviewed them and went to community groups to gather opinions.
“This has been a very long process,” Meidl said.
City Council Member Breean Beggs lauded the department for engaging the community in the process.
It’s rare for a police department to ask the community what values they want reflected in the police department, Beggs said.
As an attorney, Beggs sued the city of Spokane in 2009 over the March 2006 death of Otto Zehm in the hands of police, and has been an advocate for police reform.
“I really like it because traditionally use-of-force policies are written to what’s the maximum amount of force an officer can use in a situation,” Beggs said. “This policy is written in what I would call a harm-reduction model.”
The SPD Policy Manual is updated frequently to reflect changes big and small, said Sgt. Terry Preuninger.
The October changes update the department’s philosophy on de-escalation that has been in place for a while, Preuninger said.
“It’s taking our de-escalation philosophy and making it policy,” Preuninger said.
To update subject matter in the manual, instructors at the police academy and command level officers write and review the policy before it goes to Chief Meidl for final approval.
“There are no significant changes in the use-of-force policy,” Preuninger said.
The two policy sections go hand in hand because de-escalation attempts come first before resorting to use of force, Meidl said.
Department policy is reviewed annually, but Meidl said anytime the department becomes aware of a new industry best practice it will be evaluated to see if it could work in Spokane.
“It’s our goal at the agency to be consistently be reviewing what we’re doing,” Meidl said.
Logue said he plans to use data on use of force to analyze if the policy is effective in reducing instances where force is used and increasing de-escalation.
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