Police Policy Reform: Helpful or Dangerous?

Many people would agree that police departments need to change their policies on the use of force, in order to decrease the use of deadly force by officers. It sounds great in theory, but when put into practice could actually be very dangerous for officers, and is a much more complicated process than many people are willing to admit.

On March 10, 2016, two Los Angeles Police Commissioners proposed policy changes for the department that focus on the process of de-escalation in an effort to reduce the use of excessive force. The reforms would also allow more oversight to the Police Commissioners and require more training for officers on de-escalation tactics.  Commission President Matt Johnson states, “The importance of de-escalation needs to be emphasized throughout every facet of the organization,” and that “this is in no manner meant to decrease officer safety.” But will these changes really be as great and as useful as they sound on paper?

It is not a question of whether or not something needs to change, because it is obvious that something does. LAPD recently released a report showing that of the 38 people shot by LAPD officers in 2015, 8 of them (21%) were African American, when they only account for 9% of the population of the city of Los Angeles. The report also showed that more than one-third of the 38 had signs of mental illness.

De-escalation is not a new concept at all. Up until seven years ago, LAPD required that officers exhaust every possible option before resorting to deadly force. Some of these options include the use of less lethal devices such as Taser guns. The initiative focuses on officers taking action with caution and emphasizes using other methods to detain a person before needing to pull out their guns. The new proposed changes would turn back to these tactics, and increase training and supervision of the individual officers.

What remains important is finding a balance that holds officers accountable for their actions without hindering them from being able to do their jobs. Officers and union officials have spoken out, stating that the proposed changes put officers at greater risk, and that officers have to make split-second decisions in very tense situations. They joke that the best option for officers nowadays is to simply walk away from a situation so as to avoid being persecuted and possibly even prosecuted. Although they joke about it, some officers really have resorted to walking away from situations because they fear the backlash they could face if the situation were to get out of control.

People against the reforms argue that these new policies could cause officers to hesitate and second guess their decisions, which could be fatal to them in some situations.

It is important that any changes made to policies account for the difficulties officers face in making these decisions. Police Chief Charlie Beck and the Police Commission agree that they want to keep the officers safe, and do not want to jeopardize the lives of the 10,000 men and women that work for them. These officers are good men and women who join the force to help people, not killers who want to run around shooting at anything and anyone they please.

However, changes do need to be made. The concept of de-escalation could be the best option, or the best option could be something else entirely. The struggle lies in finding the balance between not putting the officers at a greater chance of risk, while also holding them accountable for their actions.

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