Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau’s new use-of-force policies, which emphasize preserving life and de-escalating conflict whenever possible, are a much-needed signal that her department is serious about building trust with the community that officers serve.
While police have been schooled in de-escalation before, the new policy is a clear attempt to put greater emphasis on minimizing force. Harteau acknowledged that officers have been taught to “hurry up, answer that call, get to the next call, resolve this situation, he’s got a knife, he’s got a gun, take care of that quick.” Now, she said, “We’re saying, you know what? Slow down. Slow down for everybody involved and slow down for the officers.”
The strategy announced Monday is in line with what President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (tinyurl.com/policing-task-force) has recommended and a shift many departments are making.
But let’s not kid ourselves. This style of policing comes at a cost. It takes time and resources to wait out potentially dangerous situations, talk a suspect down and call for backup to avoid physical force. It also will take an attitude shift by a public accustomed to having officers charge in and immediately take control of a situation.
Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation, said many officers already use de-escalation techniques. “It’s always easier to resolve a situation verbally,” Kroll said. “But I’m concerned that officers not be afraid to defend themselves.” That’s a valid concern.
What may be even more important than a renewed emphasis on de-escalation is a new mandate that officers intervene at the scene when fellow officers are using inappropriate force or engaging in misconduct. They also will be obligated to report the incident to a supervisor, as well as to internal affairs.
Police officers form strong bonds with one another, which is necessary in a job where your life may depend on your partner. But it is too easy to slip into a “thin blue line” mind-set of cops vs. everyone else, which allows wayward officers to go unchecked. The great majority of Minneapolis police officers do outstanding work that gets little recognition. They collect blankets for the homeless in the winter, distribute turkeys at Thanksgiving and take children shopping at Christmas. They perform a thousand small interactions that go unheralded, while also putting their lives on the line in dangerous situations.
But those few who fail to do their duty properly should be called out, retrained and disciplined if needed. That is the single surest way to build stronger community relations and trust. There should be a stronger commitment to supporting good officers with the resources and training they need, while being diligent about weeding out the few bad actors that are in every workplace.
Kroll says police officers “will never be social workers.” That’s true. But the evidence piles up daily that policing is far more complex than just chasing down bad guys. The next radio call could involve someone who’s mentally ill, strung out on drugs, having a bad day or in full-on criminal mode. Each requires a different response.
Harteau is looking for ways to create a more nuanced, skilled police force that is committed to protecting the public and preserving life. As long as the training results in safer streets for citizens and police, that’s an approach that should be applauded.