The St. Paul Police Department described the new version of its use-of-force policy as a strong statement for de-escalation, while activists said it doesn't go far enough.
An updated version, called the "Response to Resistance and Aggression" policy, was released Wednesday after months of public input and meetings. The changes take effect March 30, and revise policies that were written between 2011 and 2016.
Among key changes, said department spokesman Steve Linders, is a focus on de-escalation, clearer definitions of resistance and tweaks to language that foster empathy between police and civilians.
"It's a policy that works for the community members, our officers and the department," Linders said. "It's stronger, it's more complete and it's reflective of our shared values."
The policy for the first time requires officers to seek medical help whenever an "electronic control device" is used.
Fifteen organizations sent a letter Wednesday to police Chief Todd Axtell and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter demanding more.
"We remain concerned that the current version fails to adequately adopt national best practices and accurately reflect the expertise of the communities most impacted by policing," said the letter. "We do not believe the current version of the policy does enough to limit unnecessary use of force, restrict deadly force, or require reasonable use of de-escalation tactics."
The letter was signed, in part, by the ACLU of Minnesota, Advocates for St. Paul Youth and Families, the Frogtown Neighborhood Association and the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP.
They asked police to produce data about its use of force and to create a committee of community members to continue work on the policy, among other requests.
"We've seen some improvements that speak to the benefit of community feedback, but unfortunately, the policy still falls short," said Laura Jones, a Hamline-Midway resident who worked with the organizations, along with West Side Community Organization, on the letter.
For example, Jones said, the department refused to adopt a policy that would prohibit use of force on someone who is already restrained. Jones cited the case of former officer Michael Soucheray II, who was acquitted of assault in 2017; he had been charged with punching a suicidal 14-year-old girl who was handcuffed in his squad. Soucheray later resigned.
Carter said he was committed to ongoing work on the policy, but could not immediately identify changes he believed could be adopted sooner than later.
"I appreciate everybody who wants to push us even further," Carter said. "We consider this to be a continuing conversation."
Axtell issued a statement earlier in the day thanking community members for their contribution.
"We are grateful to everyone who joined us as we worked to update the policy to ensure that it meets the needs of the people we serve, our officers and the department," Axtell said. "The new version puts greater emphasis on protecting the sanctity of human life, de-escalation and guidelines to help officers determine the appropriate response to a person's resistance or aggression."
Part of the policy's de-escalation instruction reads: "Officers should attempt to de-escalate encounters before using force to respond to resistance or aggression, when safe to do so. At times an officer must exercise control of a violent or resisting person to make an arrest, or to protect the officer, other officers, or members of the community from the risk of imminent harm."
Such language and other parts of the policy appear to blur the line between what is and what isn't acceptable conduct, said Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU of Minnesota.
"It seems like the policy is adding an emphasis on de-escalation … but maintaining language to hedge and still kind of have it both ways," she said.
However, Nelson and Dianne Binns, president of the St. Paul NAACP, said the changes were a step in the right direction.
"It's a start," Binns said. "At least now there's some thinking about some things."
Community input prompted police to replace "subject" with "person" in the policy, include references to guidelines about dealing with people in crisis and to add notices about repercussions for misconduct.
Public input also led to these additions: "Verbal arguing alone does not constitute active resistance," and "Threatened or actual self-harm alone does not authorize officer use of deadly force."