When Police 'Use of Force' Updates Are Anything But

Former Baltimore Police officer blasts reforms as just more of the same.


Michael Reynolds/EPA/Newscom

In the wake of the unrest in Baltimore following Freddie Gray's death at the hands of the police department, the mayor and police announced "reforms" to their use of force policies.

The Baltimore Sun noted these reforms, the first since 2003, would emphasize the "sanctity of life" and de-escalation techniques and urges officers to intervene when other officers step out of line. Ed Krayewski took a critical eye to the changes last week.

But if these reforms seem like the kind of commonplace practices police departments should already have, it might because they already do. Michael Wood, a former Baltimore Police sergeant, took to the pages of the Baltimore Sun to point out that many of these reforms are already existing policies just being repackaged:

  • The new policy reportedly emphasizes the "sanctity of life." Yet the 2003 policy states "protecting life" is the BPD's highest priority, and 1993 General Order C-5, entitled "The Values of the BPD," states "our highest commitment is protecting life."
  • The new policy stresses de-escalation. But this has long been stressed in police training and police policy around the country, including in the BPD. The Sun wrote about statewide efforts to defuse violent situations with "verbal judo" 16 years ago, and former BPD commissioner Kevin Clark pushed the same policies during his tenure more than a decade ago.
  • The new policy requires reporting when officers point firearms or flash a Taser's electrical current without firing it. Yet the 2003 use of force policy says an officer must "immediately notify your supervisor whenever you use reportable force," which includes "any use" of an Air Taser. And pointing a firearm at something you do not intend to shoot is a violation of firearms safety 101; no accredited police training teaches otherwise. This has always been a violation, thus the disciplinary action last year against an officer for pointing his gun at dirt bike riders in Druid Hill Park, and the five-year prison sentence handed down in January for Prince George's County Police Officer Jenchesky Santiago, who was convicted of assault for pointing his firearm at a man's head.
  • The new policy requires calling for a medic when necessary. A 2007 policy states that law enforcement shall "attend to the well-being of any injured member and/or civilian," and "ensure injuries to members and civilians are documented." For injuries to prisoners, see the reporting requirements in accordance with General Order K-14, "Persons in Police Custody." Going all the way back to 1997, it states officers must "ensure the safety of the arrestee" and "ensure medical treatment." This 1997 order also states that "the arrestee is secured with seat/restraint belts provided."

When we see these new cases that suggest over-the-top use of force responses with Philando Castle and Alton Sterling, it's a reminder that as much as the powers that be seem to cling to these solutions, from local municipalities all the way up to the Department of Justice, rarely is the problem that police departments don't have proper policies to curtail abuse. Rather, they either lack the will or there are too many barriers, often imposed by union agreements, that keep police officers from being held accountable for bad behavior.

Granted, it's true that the officers in Gray's case are being cleared by the justice system and their behavior has not been ignored. They faced trial and were not convicted. Many are probably unhappy with the outcome given the circumstances.

But beyond the criminal justice system there's still the issue that it's very hard to hold police officers accountable, period, because of rules that protect them from interviews at the time when a use of force incident happens, because of contracts that make it very hard to remove bad police officers who make poor decisions, and because of laws that conceal police officers from transparency about their previous conduct. Should we have to literally convict a bad police officer of a crime in order to remove him or her from the force?

Since there does not appear to be the will to fix those problems or the ability to counter the political power of police unions in municipalities, we get an obsession with "policies," as though that's the problem. The method by which government employees are able to protect themselves at the expense of public safety is the problem.

NEXT: Gary Johnson Says Alton Sterling's Shooting Could Be "Murder"

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I don’t understand how it is legal for a union contract to allow what would otherwise be considered obstruction.

    1. That’s because you are clinging to the foolish notion that we are a nation of laws, where the laws apply equally to everyone. That is not the case. The law is applied based upon who you are, not what you did. If you’re a police officer or a Clinton, then the law doesn’t matter. You do what you want, and nothing else happens. If you are a member of the general public, then you are guilty until proven innocent. Welcome to the land of the free (to ask permission and obey orders).

  2. Whatever use of force rules there are, the rules are pointless because there’s no punishment for breaking them.

    So long as police unions continue to exist, there will never be any punishment for breaking the rules.

    1. Sure there is punishment for breaking the rules. They will place a black mark in your record that no one will be allowed to see, that will be removed after you go 90 days without shooting anyone else.

  3. Your pig looks fabulous in that new dress! And that’s the perfect lipstick color.

  4. OT: Comey basically just said that any government employee can do what H did, *leave government service*, and get away with it.

    This just gets more and more bizarre.

    1. By this time I’d settle for “leave government service,” but in Hillary’s case we may not be so lucky.

    2. A few minutes ago he was asked “Why should people obey the law if their leaders don’t have to?”.

      “That is a really good question” was his answer.

      1. If immediately after he said “why don’t you ask yourself that question, fuckwad” I would have so much respect.

      2. Apparently it’s up to the American People to decide.

    3. There is no transcript of Hillary’s interview, no recording, and Comey also said they didn’t review it to see if she lied to them.

      Basically, the FBI bent over backwards not to find anything when they interviewed her. There is a report from the interviewers and that’s it.

  5. Should we have to literally convict a bad police officer of a crime in order to remove him or her from the force?

    Hey, if you don’t like it, vote for better contract negotiators.

    1. Why should representatives of the people have to negotiate with the people’s employees?

      Why not a “public’s Bill of Rights” saying that government employees must obey any and all constitionally-valid conditions the representatives of the people choose to place on their employment?

      1. I mean, the elected branches of government should have *more* authority over public employees than over the general public, yet cops have more rights vis-a-vis their employers than peon citizens have vis-a-vis the cops or other government agents.

  6. I think rather than try and reform cops, every citizen should watch “The Wire” and then realize every municipality in America has suffered identical internal-dramas for the last 30 years.

    If people had a better understanding of the inherent political conflicts-of-interest going on in every form of government, they’d stop demanding “more rules” to try and make angels out of them. They might actually consider ‘reducing the number of crimes’, so that police stop intervening in every aspect of human live.

    1. “…aspect of human life”

    2. The guy who made The Wire doesn’t even get it. I am amazed at how many people I can talk to personally who don’t really mind any of this.

      1. IIRC, he does not favor drug legalization because childrunz.

      2. That doesn’t surprise me. They had an entire plotline on a cop who basically legalized drugs in his area as long as there was no violence. But the violence persisted. The basic take away was supposed to be that drugs will always draw violence.

        You know, because the drug supply would really remain in the hands of barely literate thugs in the worst neighborhoods if it was decriminalized. People associate drugs with the ills of prohibition and black markets at this point.

        There was no solution offered up in The Wire. And the guy who made it in real life thinks we should just keep electing Democrats and probably throw more money into the pit.

        1. Well, part of that plot-line involved previously violent neighborhoods becoming more peaceful. If more cops were like Bunny Colvin, the world would be a better place.

  7. The praetorians were in actually qualified soldiers and probably had tough standards regarding fitness. They didn’t just strap some body armor onto a bloated mess of a human being and call him your superior. Give the Romans some credit.

  8. “ensure injuries to members and civilians…”

    Since when are cops not civilians?

    1. When they are MPs/SPs.

    2. Since they became privileged armsmen for the ruling class, that’s when.

  9. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Detroit) can barely read.

  10. First you start by only letting people that are raised to be cops become cops. Those to be raised as cops will be removed from the rest of society at about age 8. They’ll be raised in such a way that they can’t possibly become bad cops.

    Then you don’t let them own anything. And I mean anything, not even clothes. You make them completely dependent upon the rest of society to fill their needs.

  11. The new policy reportedly emphasizes the “sanctity of our life, not yours.”

    Yet the 2003 policy states “protecting our life, not yours” is the BPD’s highest priority,

    and 1993 General Order C-5, entitled “The Values of the BPD,” states “our highest commitment is protecting our life, not yours.”

    Just like you need the special glasses to see what’s really in the Constitution, you need special glasses to read cop policies.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.