Reading the fine print of police use-of-force policies

What citizens should know about how police are trained

  • Joseph Darius Jaafari
Good morning, Contexters. Pennsylvania was all the rage yesterday with politics, as former vice president Joe Biden and current Vice President Mike Pence were here to campaign. It was, as I referred to it earlier this week, an exercise in alliteration: Pence attended a “Back the Blue” rally in Philly, and Biden proposed a $700 billion economic plan called “Build Better Back.” Fun with words, my friends. Today, we’re looking at police use-of-force policies (again), diving into how you, Contexters, can be better informed on your next traffic stop… or, not. —Joseph Darius Jaafari, Reporter
FILE - In this June 7, 2020, file photo, protesters participate in a Black Lives Matter rally on Mount Washington overlooking downtown Pittsburgh, to protest the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. In recent years, there have been dozens of examples of officers who had numerous complaints against them of excessive force, harassment or other misconduct before they were accused of killing someone on duty.

Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo

FILE – In this June 7, 2020, file photo, protesters participate in a Black Lives Matter rally on Mount Washington overlooking downtown Pittsburgh, to protest the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. In recent years, there have been dozens of examples of officers who had numerous complaints against them of excessive force, harassment or other misconduct before they were accused of killing someone on duty.

Earlier this week, Ed Mahon and I published a story that looked at how multiple police departments in Pennsylvania were not sharing the rules their officers are taught about when and how they can use force.

You can read our original piece here, and then my recap of the piece in Tuesday’s morning’s Context is here.

We found that out of 35 of the state’s largest police departments, less than a third were releasing their use-of-force policy to the public. Law enforcement agencies and county lawyers stuck to a similar script for not releasing the documents, arguing that making them public would put officers’ lives in danger.

You can read the full version here, but we’re going to go ahead and dissect what it says for you because it’s imperative the general public know more about policing, specifically what officers are taught about using force against the citizens they are sworn to protect..

The biggest takeaway, unfortunately, is that PSP’s policy could use some work.

“I don’t think that this does anything to assure me when they [troopers] can pull their gun out during a traffic stop,” said Cheryl Irons, assistant professor of criminal justice studies at Temple University.

We gave Irons a copy of the PSP document and asked for her opinion about whether the policy sufficiently explains how police can justify use of force against someone.

“On the one hand, I can feel why they should be given latitude at a traffic stop,” she said. “But on the other, I don’t look at this [policy] as a citizen and say I know what I can and can’t do.”

That’s a common criticism from experts we asked to look at the policy – it’s just not specific enough.

Without restrictive language, research shows that police will tend to use more use of force, according to William Terrill, associate dean at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University, who specializes in police training and behavior.

Terrill, who graduated from Penn State Harrisburg, published a study that looked at three police departments’ use-of-force policies and their incident reports. He found that agencies that had more restrictive rules about when officers can use their weapons – i.e. outlining the specific ways officers should react in situations, such as verbal intimidation versus passive resistance to an arrest – police officers used less lethal force.

The Pennsylvania State Police policy, he said, falls far short of that.

“It places all the individual discretion at the officers’ hands,” he said. “This policy is wacky on many levels.”

For example, the Pennsylvania State Police policy says troopers should only unholster their guns in high-risk situations, such as when serving a felony arrest warrant or conducting a search for suspects. “Felonies” is a loaded term, and the policy is written in a way that gives officers wide discretion in determining when they feel unsafe. It does not state if police have the authority to unholster their weapons for non-violent felony arrests or searches.

That kind of vague wording isn’t uncommon in department policies, says Terrill: “There is no universal policy. There is a lot of variation on how agencies should document their force, but you have to give your officers some guidance.”

What we’ve looked at this morning is just one department’s policy, so this is not to say that all police agencies are the same. But as more local police departments release their use-of-force guidelines, it’s important that citizens be able to assess them. So, we’ve compiled a quick list of what you should be looking for when reviewing the policies:

  • Look at the definitions: There’s power in words, and just like with every contract, some words may not be as they appear. Look for how the policy defines what officers can use to justify their action. In the PSP policy, troopers have to take in the “totality of the known circumstances,” which is just a long way of saying troopers must be able to fully gauge the situation. Being clear on the wording is key.

  • Look for what’s not written: As a kid, you probably got away with doing things because your parents only laid out what you could do, not what you couldn’t do. Same goes for government policies, even police. If your local department does not have language that specifically says when an officer can’t use a weapon, make note of that.

  • Look at the continuum of force: Many -– not all – departments provide guidance for how police officers should react in very specific situations — a policy that takes into account that some situations an officer may encounter are less risky than others. The point is to guide officers into a reasonable response. Some departments don’t provide that, which makes it difficult for the public to know what is a reasonable reaction from police in certain situations.

Have questions? Have an experience with police that you want to share? Reach out to us. We’re continuing to dig into this issue, and we’re always happy to hear about your experiences, answer your questions or take your suggestions. –  Joseph Darius Jaafari

Best of the rest

Kate Landis / PA Post

A Trump-Pence 2020 campaign bus parked at the Lancaster airport on July 9, 2020. Vice President Mike Pence flew into Lancaster for a fundraiser in Manheim, then traveled by bus for appearances in Chester County and Philadelphia.

  • Elbow bumps, masks in play: Vice President Mike Pence sported his mask and gave elbow bumps to local officials when he arrived in Lancaster Thursday morning. County Commissioner Ray D’Agostino greeted the vice president, and thanked him for the administration’s efforts to reopen the economy (D’Agostino was one of many commissioners in the state who challenged Gov. Tom Wolf’s shutdown orders, and tried to reopen businesses before the state allowed). Here the LNP story about Pence’s visit; The Philadelphia Inquirer has plenty of coverage of Pence’s visit.

  • Hometown visit: Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, was also in the state, as noted above. Scranton Times-Tribune subscribers can read their coverage of Biden’s day in his hometown here. The New York Times said of Biden’s speech: He “laid out a populist economic vision to revive and reinvest in American manufacturing on Thursday, calling for major new spending and stricter new rules to ‘Buy American’ as part of an effort to more aggressively challenge President Trump on two of his signature issues: the economy and nationalism.” See also stories from Politico, the Capital-Star and the Associated Press. Also, Axios on Scranton as the center of the universe.

  • School’s (maybe) back in session: Masks will be required as students go back to school, according to the state’s newest guidelines for how educational settings should move forward with classes starting in the fall. The announcement was made the same day that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that they wouldn’t be easing the guidelines for schools on how to open safely, despite pressure from President Trump who threatened to withhold federal aid for schools that didn’t fully open in August. Related from VoxI’m an epidemiologist and a dad. Here’s why I think schools should reopen.

  • Back to where we started: Tests in Pa. are becoming as difficult to get as they were when the pandemic first started, reports Wallace McKelvey with PennLive. Patients are being turned away from testing sites, and others are being told they’ll have to wait up to a week to get results. He reports that this is all “a local consequence of the national testing supply chain being stretched to its limit.”

  • Not so bad? Coronavirus infections are rising in Pittsburgh and other parts of southwestern Pa. But hospitalizations aren’t rising, partially because young people make up a larger portion of new cases. But the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that “another possible factor is that UPMC more recently has been seeing a mutated SARS-CoV-2 strain that seems to be more infectious but less virulent than the original strain that triggered the pandemic, said Dr. Graham Snyder, UPMC medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology.”

  • Conference call: The Big 10 announced Thursday that its member schools will only play in-conference football games this fall, a step that trims three or more games from each team’s schedule. The conference “also made clear that any student-athlete who isn’t comfortable playing this fall because of the global health crisis will have their scholarship honored,” PennLive reported. Is it inevitable that all Division I conferences will cancel fall sports this year? PennLive’s David Jones says it’s time to face reality: “Is everyone in total denial here? I believe the whole premise of having a fall football season was predicated on a summer easing of the virus, the erroneous notion that it didn’t like hot weather, possibly a breakthrough treatment that would mitigate symptoms in absence of a vaccine, and that people would act with good sense instead of flying their Don’t Tread on Me snake flags in vacant defiance. None of that happened.”

Further reading on policing:


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