By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
Reverberations resulting from the death of George Floyd, an African American who died while in police custody in Minneapolis, continue to be felt throughout not only the United States but globally. Residents in Kitsap County also have raised their voices in dissent.
Protests have been held in hundreds of cities nationwide and across several continents. In Kitsap County, protests have been peacefully organized in towns across the peninsula, including at least three in Port Orchard.
Local law enforcement officials signed a letter to Kitsap County residents that was sharply critical of police conduct in Floyd’s alleged murder. Six local law enforcement heads signed the letter, including Port Orchard Police Chief Matt Brown and Kitsap County Sheriff Gary Simpson. The letter, in part, said:
“The death of Mr. George Floyd in Minneapolis is indefensible. As law enforcement professionals who have dedicated our careers to serving others, it sickens us to watch the video … A man needlessly lost his life because of the actions of one police officer and the inaction of his partners.”
Though the Minneapolis tragedy and other similar incidents have taken place hundreds and thousands of miles away, the widespread unrest stemming from police brutality is impacting local law enforcement.
Calls by protesters for police reform have been almost universally supported by the American public. On Tuesday, the Associated Press released results from an opinion poll indicating that 94% of Americans survey across the demographic landscape support at least some measure of police reform – 69% of those surveyed believe major changes need to be implemented. Just 5% oppose any reforms, the survey stated.
Message of Protesters
Police Chief Brown and Sheriff Simpson have similar takeaways from the protests.
“I don’t want to speak for them but I think the message is [that] as a community and nation, we need to address systemic racism in the criminal justice system and systemic racism in systems within our communities,” Brown said.
“They are trying to get society to recognize,” Simpson said of the protesters, “that they have been ignored and want people to listen.
“Let’s listen to what the protesters are saying and try to understand the life they have been living for hundreds of years and decide what we can do as a society to change so there is more equity and equality in our communities.”
Excessive force claims against some officers in various states have led a significant number of police departments to examine their standard operating procedures.
“I know there are concerns about what some people call ‘strangle’ and ‘choke holds.’ We do not choke or strangle people or cut off their airway. That’s not what we do,” Brown said.
The Port Orchard chief, who was named to lead the city’s police department last summer, heads a force of 23 officers.
“There are questions of use of force. But I’m comfortable with our use of force policy. It’s published on our website. That doesn’t mean it’s not subject to change if it’s appropriate.” Brown added.
Simpson said his 125 deputies also do not use choke holds as part of their procedure to restrain suspects.
“I was appalled when I learned the other day the Minneapolis police department just banned the choke hold,” Simpson said.
“What they were doing was apparently an appropriate and acceptable technique. I was shocked. We don’t teach those types of things.”
While neither police agency said it trains or authorizes choke holds in their written policies, there has been a call by some to guarantee such maneuvers do not occur.
Tracy S. Flood, Bremerton/Kitsap NAACP branch president, insists affirmative steps must be taken to ensure such force is never used.
“Choke holds and neck restraints need to be banned,” Flood said. “If they are unacceptable and not trained at the academy, then there needs to be language in police policies that say these are banned.”
Flood has spoken with the Port Orchard police chief and county sheriff about the request. “Both were open to the idea,” she said. “It was received in a positive way.”
NAACP officials also are calling for the formation of a citizen’s review panel to examine use-of-force issues.
“These are areas that need to be addressed,” Flood said.
One neck-related use-of-force technique authorized until recently by both police agencies is something called the lateral vascular neck restraint (LVNR). The sheriff’s office recently placed a moratorium on its use.
The LVNR is a use-of-force technique that causes someone to temporarily pass out by restricting blood flow to the brain, the sheriff explained. It is typically used when a person is on drugs, in an excited, out-of-control state of delirium and needs immediate medical attention.
“We want to wait and see what the state and feds are going to do. One thing I don’t want is … the public’s perception of the LVNR is [that] it’s illegal and there is a death through asphyxiation due to a person’s poor health or being under the influence.
“I do not want to put [a deputy] in a position where the public puts pressure on the prosecutor’s office and they get charged with murder. I’m not going that route,” the sheriff stressed.
Meanwhile, the Port Orchard police department has only one officer on its force trained to use the technique, which it refers to in its use-of-force guidelines as “vascular neck restraint.”
Simpson describes the technique as “a high-level use of force.” He and Brown said the technique is not a choke hold. A demonstration of the neck restraint can be viewed at: youtube.com/watch?v=mLGZFuGYlqE.
Other than the sheriff’s office’s moratorium on using the neck restraint technique, neither police agency plans to initiate any immediate procedural changes for patrol officers.
“I think it’s still a little early to make specific changes,” Brown said. “Changes, I think, need to call for conversations in the office and out in the community.”
The sheriff agrees.
“I think we are a little early in making drastic changes in procedures or policy. We are currently looking at all of our policies related to use of force. It’s actually a constant discussion we have, anyway,” Simpson said.
“If you ask, what we are going to do different in the future, we are still waiting for some direction,” the sheriff said.
Simpson said an overarching conversation is underway nationally that is attempting how to define what a policing organization should be and what responsibilities it should take on.
“We are supposed to be a reflection of what society wants us to do. Society right now doesn’t know. In my opinion, it’s very much in confusion,” Simpson said.
“We work for the community. Ultimately if they want us to do things and legislate it, I have zero problem with it. This business is always evolving and we should evolve to what is right for the community,” Brown said.
“You cannot have a police department that says we are going out to the range and practice traffic stops — and that’s it,” the Port Orchard chief said.
“Our biggest job is helping people who are in disputes and in crisis. That is where the training should be focused,” Brown said.
“Our goal should always be to minimize the number of times we have to force people to do things. We need to be able to look at our implicit bias and understand if there is something else behind why I am making these decisions,” he said.
Under the Law Enforcement Training and Community Safety Act and Port Orchard police department regulations and standards, Brown said officers get de-escalation, implicit bias and racial profiling training.
At the sheriff’s office, training has come to a standstill due to the COVID-19 crisis.
“It’s very difficult for us to do the kind of training we need to do,” the sheriff admitted. “We are behind the eight-ball on some of the things we wanted to get trained.”
Additionally, budget cuts of approximately 10 percent over the next year because of reduced county income due to the coronavirus pandemic is adversely impacting deputy training.
“We always want to do more training. Any profession has to have ongoing education and training. We are stifled in that area to do the job we want to do,” Simpson said.
“Training is a constant battle.”
Headline-grabbing use-of-force incidents have dominated the news for weeks. Not surprisingly, the critical coverage in the news media has impacted local law enforcement staff on a personal level.
“There certainly have been impacts,” the police chief conceded. “I don’t know of another profession where someone can make a horrific choice on the other side of the country and it directly impacts your day. When you see some of these things going on, it just hurts your heart. It’s frustrating.
“We have had protests here, not as large-scale as other areas, but it is important [for officers] to remember they are not protesting [against] them as individuals but are protesting a system that has embedded racism.”
The sheriff shares these sentiments.
“The morale is okay. It’s not high, but they are still out there doing their job, day in and day out, professionally,” Simpson said.
“It’s disparaging while we work hard to build relationships with our communities and be professional at what we do, then someone does something inappropriate across the country and we are judged for the same action,” Simpson said.
Still, area police departments report that many residents have gone out of their way to thank the police for the job they do. The agencies routinely get coffee, donuts and other treats given by appreciative citizens.
“We just had a restaurant drop off 50 $10 gift cards to say, ‘We want you to know we appreciate you’,” Simpson said.
America at the crossroads?
Many Americans now feel that society is at a point in which meaningful police reform can take place. But until a consensus is reached about the changes that need to be made, the degree to which law enforcement will adjust has yet to be determined. Those changes will be agreed to on a local and regional level through community discussion and changes in the law determined by local government officials and legislators in Olympia.
“I know the focus is on us now and rightfully so,” Brown said. “But maybe this is a turning point in our society where we can be a little more equitable and kind to one another.”
NAACP’s Flood feels the time for change has come but does not believe society is at a crossroads.
“Society has always been able to choose what road to take. We have been here before. Now is the time for transformation from what has been normal,” Flood said.
“Our law enforcement should be seen as ‘peace officers’ verses when they act as judge and jury and use excessive force. As peace officers, the goal is to keep everyone in the community safe,” she added.
“This has been a cyclical matter in society,” Simpson said. “We had Rodney King, the LA riots, WTO and then the most recent murder. It’s seems we deal with surface issues but do not get to the underlying issues.
“We need to break that cycle.”