SF police reforms emphasize de-escalation

Police training will now emphasize the need for time, distance and de-escalation in dealing with armed suspects in an effort to avoid officer-involved shootings like that one that killed Mario Woods in December, San Francisco police and city officials said Monday.

The changes in training are part of a package of police reforms announced today by Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr alongside Police Commission President Suzy Loftus and community members. The reforms are intended to rebuild trust between police and the community, officials said.

Suhr said Monday:

“For years we’ve been working as a police department with community members to foster trust. … Without trust in the community we can’t do our jobs. That trust was shaken for many in the community on Dec. 2 with the shooting of Mario Woods.”

Suhr and Loftus Monday said research shows most officer-involved shootings occur within minutes after officers arrive on scene and usually at close range. Better officer training, use of force protocols and equipment, particularly in situations involving suspects armed with weapons other than firearms, could reduce such shootings by up to 80 percent, they said.

A draft use of force policy being considered by the Police Commission emphasizes the sanctity of life, de-escalation and proportionate response. It calls for officers to establish a buffer zone around the suspect to reduce the need for the use of force and use verbal skills to engage the suspect. It also bans the use of chokeholds, prohibits officers from shooting at vehicles and — more controversially — calls for some officers to be armed with Tasers.

The department has already directed officers to report all instances in which a weapon is drawn. Supervisors respond to all incidents involving a weapon, Suhr said.

In addition, it has expanded firearms qualification training from two hours to an eight hour “Force Options” training, equipped all patrol cars with helmets and batons for use with suspects armed with edged weapons and doubled the number of “less-lethal” bean bag guns available, officials said.

The reforms announced today include the creation of a new Bureau of Professional Standards and Principled Policing, led by Deputy Chief Tony Chaplain, to oversee reform and work with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in a review of department policies and practices.

The department is also training more officers in crisis intervention, implicit bias and procedural justice, developing a protocol for handling suspects with edged weapons and working to secure training and funding for protective shields that officers can use against armed suspects, officials said.

Lee said he is including the proposed reforms in his budget planning:

“This comprehensive package of police reforms will help our sworn officers strengthen their ties with the community and keep our city safe through a cultural change in how we handle conflicts on our streets.”

The reforms were introduced today with the support of members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, faith leaders and other community groups that were actively involved in their development.

Not present at the press conference, however, were representatives of the Police Officers Association. In an indication of the difficulties the department might face internally in promoting reform, the police union issued a statement following today’s announcement complaining that the mayor and Suhr had not included it in discussions about the new policies.

POA President Martin Halloran said in a statement Monday afternoon:

“These are the biggest changes proposed to police policy in over 35 years and — although some of the policies may be good ones — some of the policies may expose our members to harm. … We are not going to let that happen.”

A letter from Suhr and Loftus outlining the proposed reforms is available online at http://sfmayor.org/modules/showdocument.aspx?documentid=484.