Police use of force is a hot topic in the U.S. right now in the wake of the death of George Floyd, which touched off protests nationwide and increased calls for change, reform and the defunding of police departments.
New BIPD Chief Joe Clark, who was selected to lead the department in March, joined the city council at its last meeting on July 14 to review his plans to update the department’s use of force policies and field questions from council members with the goal of aligning policies to meet community expectations.
Clark said he used a number of resources to meet this goal, including the Police Executive Research Forum, the International Association of Police Chiefs, and Campaign Zero, a nonprofit that seeks to end police violence in America.
“What does the community expect of their police department? We want to make sure our policies meet those expectations,” Clark said.
The island typically sees a few incidents each year that require some form of physical force on the part of officers. Use of force is defined as the application of physical techniques or tactics, chemical agents or weapons to another person. All use of force incidents are required to be reported by the officer involved and investigated and reviewed by supervisors and then the chief to determine compliance with department policies.
In the past five years (2015-2019), the department has averaged six per year — 31 in total — with a slight uptick in 2018 and 2019, which had nine incidents each. Most were physical in nature and did not involve a firearm or taser. There was one officer-involved shooting in 2017 (Eagle Harbor) and 2018 (Winslow Green) each. There have been three use of force incidents in 2020.
“We want to make sure the force used is appropriate, that it’s reasonable and necessary under the circumstances of the event and that it fits within the guidelines of the agency,” Clark said.
Clark covered elements of Campaign Zero that are either already part of the department’s policy or will be implemented in part or in whole as part of his review.
For example, one of the biggest flashpoints surrounding the death of George Floyd was the inability or unwillingness for the three other officers present to intervene. BIPD policy requires officers intervene to stop another officer from using excessive force.
BIPD also already requires officers to deescalate where possible, by slowing down the incident, communicating with the individual and removing the immediacy of the threat to allow for more time to resolve the incident peacefully. Several department policies already refer to de-escalation training and techniques, but a separate policy will be adopted.
“That keeps everyone safe, including the officers,” Clark said.
When asked for his thoughts about Floyd’s death, Clark responded that “there was a culture that allowed that to happen.” He also noted the relative difficulty of influencing all officers in the right direction regarding use of force in large departments, whereas it’s a little easier in a place as small as Bainbridge.
“There were four police officers there and three who could have stopped that from happening,” Clark said.
“They thought that was okay,” he added, stating that’s where bias training needs to come in and challenge and change the inner perceptions of officers.
Clark will also incorporate the restriction of the use of chokeholds and vascular neck restraints to situations in which deadly force is authorized into the final use of force policy. The reason for not having an outright ban, he said, is because in these situations, the only other alternative is a firearm. The chokehold then becomes the less-lethal option.
Body cameras were implemented and are mandatory for all officers as of June. Use of force statistics are posted each year on the department’s website and implicit bias, cultural awareness and diversity training have been implemented as required by the state.
Defund the police?
In recent weeks there have been growing calls from around the country to reallocate money from police departments to invest more in social services to address other societal issues, such as poverty and homelessness; though various individuals and groups have differed on what that precisely means.
The city spends annually about $6 million of its $16 million general fund budget, which itself is only one portion of the total budget and recently completed a four-year plan to bring on more officers in order to have proper patrol coverages. The department tries to have four officers on duty per shift, including the supervisor and the patrol officers.
Clark said that number is ideal because if an arrest is made, one officer will be making a long trip to Port Orchard to transport the person, but the rest of the officers on duty will still be able to respond to another call for service. Having additional officers on duty also influences outcomes on those calls as the officer would not have to face certain potentially dangerous situations alone.
City Manager Morgan Smith said that since about 75 percent of the police budget goes toward salaries and benefits, any substantive discussion on the reallocation of funds would ultimately mean a reduction in the police force.
“If we’re going to talk about reducing police budget, I want us to be clear, that we would have to be talking about reducing police personnel,” Smith said, “and I want people at the outset to understand that there are ways in which that works against the goals you are describing.”
Several council members advocated at least having that discussion, which was initially pushed forward by Councilmember Rasham Nassar.
“This is the time, I assume, because we have next steps prepared for us in the packet,” Nassar said. “Personally, I would advocate that we do have that conversation the next time we have a conversation related to police. If we’re not, I think we ought to be transparent about that.”
Councilmember Michael Pollock expressed interest in exploring that idea, reasoning that better funding for social services could address the root causes that lead to crime in the first place. Councilmember Kirsten Hytopoulous said it would be worth looking at whether or not service calls could be augmented with social services.
“I would like to see what it would look like to reallocate resources to more social services,” Pollock said. “What do we lose? What do we gain?”
Councilmember Kol Medina said he would be interested in spending the money in different ways, but he also believes with the city’s limited budget, it would be unlikely to make a dent in the issues.
“Whether the city were to try to come up with money from the police budget, or just its own general fund in some way, the city is never going to have enough money to have a substantial impact on the provision of social services on the island,” Medina said. “The city is never going to have enough money to have a substantial impact on a lot of the issues that have been raised tonight. We just won’t. As someone who works in the nonprofit field and sees the tremendous amounts of money put into these types of social issues, our city budget will never be such that we could have an appreciable impact on that.”