More than a year after the death of Freddie Gray, a revised use-of-force policy focusing on “the sanctity of human life” and de-escalation of tensions will take effect Friday at the Baltimore Police Department.
The revision – the first since 2003 – was overdue, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said at a news conference Wednesday.
“We are not doing this to our police officers; we are doing this for our police officers,” Davis said.
Davis said the department was already looking into revising policies when Freddie Gray suffered a fatal spinal injury after he was placed into a prisoner transport van. Six police officers were charged in connection with Gray’s death. Three have gone to trial; two ended in acquittals, one in a mistrial.
In the wake of Gray’s death, which became a symbol of the black community’s distrust of police, BPD requested an “after action” report from the Police Executive Research Forum to analyze the incident. PERF was among several law enforcement organizations the BPD consulted in drafting the new policy, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler told CNN.
“Baltimore took a major step forward,” Wexler said. “They are implementing many of our recommendations and their policy exceeds national standards for use of force.”
The new 14-page policy is twice as long as its predecessor, which was criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union and others for being outdated and ambiguous.
The new policy emphasizes “the sanctity of human life” by directing police personnel “to value and preserve human life in all situations.” Changes in language attempt to reflect this attitude by using the term “individuals” instead of “suspects.”
New language also expands on issues like de-escalation and a duty to provide medical assistance to injured persons, key points of contention in Gray’s case. The police who arrested Gray were accused of not providing proper medical assistance after his injury, though none of the officers have been found guilty.
Director of Strategic Development Jason Johnson emphasized the focus on de-escalation as a key point that the department noted is a vital part of best practices used by today’s law enforcement.
Use of force is also now explicitly mandated to be only used “when objectively reasonably, necessary and proportional to effectively and safely resolve the incident,” according to the policy. The 2003 document stated that any use of force “must be reasonable and no more than necessary to effect a lawful purpose.”
Use-of-force complaints are down 40 percent in 2016 from last year, Baltimore police spokesman T.J. Smith told CNN, along with a 25 percent decrease in internal affairs complaints.
ACLU commends progress
The investigation of Gray’s death raised doubts about officers’ accounts specific to the van ride. The new policy breaks down procedures for reporting incidents to a supervisor into three levels of force ranging from pointing a firearm at an individual to deadly use of force. In every case, nevertheless, it states that every use of force by a member of the BPD must be reported to a supervisor.
In the previous policy, specific circumstances that required reports included the use of a capture net or physical contact resulting in an injury.
David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, commended BPD for making progress but said the new policy is not without holes.
Officers are not explicitly required to report incidents in which civilians passively resist or even comply, and compliance of an individual does not necessarily mean a person was not forced into submission. These incidents are often the most common use of force, Rocah told CNN.
Rocah says the problem lies within the gap between the department’s good intention and the actual documented policy. Namely, the only clear model for handling use of force situations is offered as a recommended guideline in an appendix of the policy rather than a direct protocol mandate.
“The way it is phrased creates unnecessary ambiguities that will make it difficult to enforce,” Rocah told CNN. “But the intent here is to go beyond what the Constitution requires and that is an important step forward.”