Over the past few weeks, the Morganton Department of Public Safety has received numerous inquiries in regards to our use of force policies, policing policies, and guidelines for the services we provide to our community. Among these inquiries, there have been questions about how our policies align with a national initiative named “8 Can’t Wait.”
The Morganton Department of Public Safety (MDPS) is committed to protecting the lives, property, and constitutional rights of all residents and visitors of our community by providing professional police and fire protection services.
As part of that commitment to our community, we feel it is pertinent to provide transparency and clarity into our use of force policies and procedures as they relate to the recommendations made by the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign.
Many of our existing policies already align with the recommendations outlined in the “8 Can’t Wait” initiative, and our policies are frequently reviewed and updated to align with best practices.
In 2019, Morganton Department of Public Safety officers responded to 39,660 calls for service — of which, only 16 required a use of force. The previous year, in 2018, officers responded to 38,660 calls for service, with only seven requiring a use of force. To date in 2020, officers have responded to 14,920 calls for service, and only 10 have required a use of force.
We credit these statistics to the quality of officers we hire, sound policies, training, and a commitment to strong community relations.
Eight can’t wait recommendations
1. Ban chokeholds and strangleholds
MDPS does not, nor has it ever, trained officers on chokeholds, strangleholds or other similar techniques. Per policy 300.3.4, “In the instance when force is used, officers should not intentionally use any technique that restricts blood flow to the head, restricts respiration or which creates a reasonable likelihood that blood flow to the head or respiration would be restricted.”
2. Require de-escalation
This recommendation is supported through policy and training. De-escalation of force is primarily addressed through Crisis Intervention calls for service, as these incidents have inherently been subject to use of force encounters. Per MDPS policy 415.6, “Officers should consider that taking no action or passively monitoring the situation may be the most reasonable response to a mental health crisis.
Once it is determined that a situation is a mental health crisis and immediate safety concerns have been addressed, responding members should be aware of the following considerations and should generally: Evaluate safety conditions, Introduce themselves and attempt to obtain the person’s name, be patient, polite, calm and courteous and avoid overreacting, Demonstrate active listening skills”, additionally, responding officers generally should not, “use stances or tactics that can be interpreted as aggressive, allow others to interrupt or engage the person, corner a person who is not believed to be armed, violent or suicidal. Argue, speak with a raised voice, or use threats to obtain compliance.”
In addition, more than a third of MDPS members are certified in Crisis Intervention, and all have recently completed training in Juvenile Minority Sensitivity training, Communication Skills with Persons in Crisis-De-escalation Techniques, Equality in Policing, Interactions and Relationships with Minority Youth, and scenario-based use of force de-escalation training.
3. Require warning before shooting
This recommendation is included in our policy in section 300.4. Per policy, “…a verbal warning should precede the use of deadly force, where feasible.” This has been a constitutional requirement since 1985 when the United States Supreme Court decided Tennessee V. Gardner and concluded that a warning must be given where feasible.
4. Exhaust all other reasonable means before shooting
MDPS policy mandates officers use only the amount of force that reasonably appears necessary given the facts and circumstances perceived by the officer at the time of the event to accomplish a legitimate law enforcement purpose. This is frequently emphasized through officer training.
5. Duty to intervene
This recommendation is included in our policy in Section 300.2.1, and reads, “Any officer present and observing another officer using force that is clearly beyond that which is objectively reasonable under the circumstances shall, when in a position to do so, intercede to prevent the use of unreasonable force. An officer who observes another employee use force that exceeds the degree of force permitted by law should promptly report these observations to a supervisor.”
6. Ban shooting at moving vehicles
This recommendation is included in our policy in Section 300.4.1, and reads, “Shots fired at or from a moving vehicle are rarely effective. Officers should move out of the path of an approaching vehicle instead of discharging their firearm at the vehicle or any of its occupants. An officer should only discharge a firearm at a moving vehicle or its occupants when the officer reasonably believes there are no other reasonable means available to avert the threat of the vehicle, or if deadly force other than the vehicle is directed at the officer or others.”
7. Require use of force continuum
The use of force continuum is an outdated model that has proved, at times, unreasonable and dangerous, when applied in real-life situations. Most agencies have eliminated this concept, recognizing that it fails to take into account the difference between officers with respect to a use of force encounter, i.e.: a 6-foot-5 male officer faced with some level of resistance from a 6-foot male, may not contemplate the same use of force matrix that would be reasonable for a 5-foot” female officer confronted by the same 6-foot male and the same level of resistance. As such, MDPS policy does not have a set pathway for an officer to determine which option of “force” must be used/considered prior to the next.
The U.S. Supreme Court case of Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989) established “Objective Reasonableness” as the standard for all applications of force in the United States. MDPS policy 300, Use of Force, reflects this case law and focuses on various factors used to determine the reasonableness of force in any situation.
No policy can realistically predict every possible situation an officer might encounter, and our officers are entrusted to use well-reasoned discretion to determine the appropriate use of force in each incident. Our policy does reflect the standard for objective reasonableness defined by Graham v. Connor, in that the use of force options are based on what is reasonable for the situation and the degree of force the officer faces. Use of force options are reinforced through annual training and policy reviews. This training and well-reasoned discretion practiced by our officers contributes to the very low number of incidents resulting in the use of force.
8. Require comprehensive reporting
MDPS policy 300.5, “Reporting the Use of Force” is very comprehensive to the degree that a supervisor follows an eight-step assessment to all incidents where force is used. Further, all uses of force are subjected to a minimum four-layer supervisory/command level review that includes the totality of evidence in each incident (In-car cameras, body-worn camera, reports, etc.).
Additionally, Morganton Public Safety supervisors conduct weekly random body-worn camera compliance checks to ensure the device is recording during citizen encounters, and to monitor the appropriateness of the officer/citizen encounter.
We understand that the effectiveness of our operations relies largely on the degree of trust between our department and the community. We believe one of the most important steps we can take to continue building a high degree of trust in our community is by being as transparent as possible about our policies and practices, and by listening to the concerns of our community.
It is my hope that this letter provides you with greater insight into the practices of the Morganton Department of Public Safety as they relate to the current national conversation surrounding policing in our communities.
We take pride in serving a community that is active in this conversation, as being held accountable by our community improves all aspects of our service, and makes us all better public servants.
Chief Tony Lowdermilk
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