Contra Costa Times: Guest commentary: Richmond police get extensive training in appropriate use of force


By: Chris Magnus

The Richmond Police Department, like many other police agencies around the country, is struggling to meet community expectations associated with crime reduction, while simultaneously assuring law enforcement is done constitutionally with respect for the public's rights. This means we are continuously looking at issues that include best practices for the use of force, how to effectively interact with difficult individuals who struggle with mental illness or addiction and how to address long-standing trust and communication barriers related to race.

I recently participated in a program on "Re-Engineering Use of Force" sponsored by the Police Executive Research Forum, an independent research organization that focuses on critical issues in policing.

Leaders from police departments around the country were at this gathering (including representatives from the U.S. Justice Department and several Bay Area cities). Although it was clear different police departments were all dealing with their own unique challenges, there were common concerns expressed, such as the desire to strengthen the "guardian" rather than "warrior" role of police officers, enhance officers' de-escalation and communication skills and improve officers' ability to appropriately assess and respond to different threats.

Without question, our profession needs to do better when it comes to critical self-evaluation. We need to have tough discussions within our agencies about our response to difficult incidents. We also need to engage our residents, so we can learn and improve through talking with each other -- not just at each other.

There is understandable anger and frustration about policing in this country, but simply demonizing the police will not lead to solutions or greater accountability.

The overwhelming majority of cops do their jobs based on a desire to help people and serve their communities. Unfortunately, a dysfunctional culture based on a "win-lose" paradigm, rather than a "win-win" goal, exists in some cities around the country, which can then reflect poorly on the larger law enforcement community.

The Richmond Police Department trains its officers to appropriately assess risk, develop crisis resolution strategies reflecting best practices, and demonstrate flexibility responding to critical incidents (including the ability to tactically reposition or "throttle back" certain actions to avoid encounters such as "suicide by cop").

We regularly evaluate high-risk incidents so we can continuously learn and improve. Most important, all these efforts are tied to a strong departmental code of ethics that is constantly reinforced.

The best officers understand that their behavior and attitude has a significant impact on the behavior and attitude of the people they interact with.

Whether it's dealing with violent mentally ill individuals or youth carrying weapons, we need to equip officers with the right kind of skills to communicate, de-escalate, as well as to use distance and positioning to gain the time necessary to safely resolve what can easily devolve into deadly encounters.

We value our community's support and hope the public understands that use of force is not always preventable in policing. Seeing officers use force is tough to watch, but that does not necessarily mean the force was avoidable, unreasonable or unlawful.

Part of a commitment to procedural justice and police legitimacy means better explaining force, talking to residents about force options, and more transparently evaluating force decisions officers make. In Richmond, for example, many residents might be surprised to learn officers used force in less than 6 percent of the 3,000 arrests they made during 2014.

As Vanita Gupta, director of the U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division, stated, "Real community policing is about an ethos -- a whole set of processes and practices -- as well as the ability to self-diagnose and correct." Although this starts with a commitment to the sanctity of life, it requires on ongoing willingness to discuss policing in a democratic society, and relies on the good will of all parties involved to work with each other.

Chief Chris Magnus is chief of the Richmond Police Department.

Reposted from Contra Costa Times

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