As America continues to address the issues associated with police using excessive force on citizens, many have started to admire the positive effects of the San Francisco Police Department’s policy restricting police from using force unless necessary. While the department still has its issues, this particular policy has resulted in less police use of force, particularly deadly force, while not increasing the number of injuries suffered by police officers.
Limits to the Use of All Force
Since 2016, the San Francisco Police Department has taught officers to only use deadly force as a last resort. In fact, in any given situation, they are only permitted to use the minimum amount of force necessary to take control in a given situation. They must resort to deescalation measures, followed by non-lethal tactics like tasers, projectile devices and body holds, before they can resort to using deadly force. Chokeholds were completely off the table long before George Floyd’s name became a national rallying cry against police violence.
Police can only use firearms in life-threatening situations, and even in potentially life-threatening situations, not all officers are to arrive with weapons drawn. To better protect themselves, police are trained to become comfortable using shields as needed. “We certainly are not training people to put themselves in positions where they’re going to be less safe,” said San Francisco training Lt. Michael Nevin. “We’re just trying to make it so that, as a situation unfolds, if you have the ability to to use time and distance to your advantage, then you utilize that with the full understanding that sometimes things don’t always go as planned.”
The Statistics Speak for Themselves
Before the law took effect, the SFPD recorded 952 use of force incidents in the first quarter of 2016. By the third quarter of last year, that number was down to less than a third, to 305. Overall, use of force in the department has decreased by 68%. While that’s impressive, it’s perhaps even more impressive that the number of incidents where police pointed guns at suspects was reduced by 80%. At the same time, police officers have suffered no increase of injuries since the policy was enacted.
California’s Deadly Force Law
It’s worth noting that California changed its use of deadly force law at the start of 2020, restricting police from using deadly force unless “it is necessary to prevent imminent and serious bodily injury or death — that is, if, given the totality of the circumstances, there was no reasonable alternative to using deadly force, including warnings, verbal persuasion, or other non-lethal methods of resolution or de-escalation.” Officers who use force in cases where a “reasonable officer” would find it unnecessary can face criminal charges for murder.
At the same time, another law (SB 230) was passed, requiring increased police training on de-escalation tactics and reduced use of force in general. This is a good idea, as studies have shown that de-escalation techniques not only reduce police use of force incidents, but also reduce the number of assaults and killings of police officers.
While these laws are a step forward, they haven’t been as transformative as many reformers had hoped. In fact, the number of fatal California police shootings increased from 135 in 2010 to 148 in 2020. It seems that a lack of training could play a major role in the lack of noted changes.
Whereas the SFPD undergoes ample training on how to de-escalate situations, protect oneself with shields and use non-lethal forms of force, statewide training is not only less consistent, but less thorough. In fact, some agencies simply undergo a two-hour state-certified class, though others offer their own training programs. Even worse, some agencies, including the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, just provide officers with a 14 minute video on the subject and a two-page flier.
As it stands right now, only 12% of California’s law enforcement officers have actually undergone the state-certified course -including only 2 total of the state’s 6,778 highway patrol officers. -It’s worth mentioning the SD Sheriff’s Department has recently announced that they will begin following the state use of force training program.
To make matters worse, some police unions, private companies and even entire police departments have spread misleading information on the new deadly force law to officers, telling them it does not change their ability to use deadly force -even though that’s precisely what it does.
That being said, one year of data is not considered statistically significant, particularly if that year was the first year of the pandemic, the first year the law was active and the year where the news of George Floyd’s death shook the nation. It will take years to accurately measure the effect of the new law and things should hopefully change as more officers undergo proper training on the issue.
In an ideal world, police would never need to use force and would still never be put in danger. For now, society needs to balance the risks to police officers face with the risks they may present to civilians in attempting to control a situation. If you have any questions on these new laws or are a police officer who is facing criminal charges related to a use of force, please call attorney Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050 or (858) 486-3024.