Newly inaugurated St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter made improved police-community relations a major campaign issue — part of what he described as building a capital city "that works for all of us."
To that end, just days into his administration, the city's Police Department reports important progress toward reducing officer-involved deaths and injuries. The city recently released welcome revisions to its use-of-force policies.
Among the changes developed under the leadership of Police Chief Todd Axtell: providing clearer rules for the use of electronic devices (Tasers); assuring that every use-of-force incident is thoroughly reported and involves supervisor oversight; and emphasizing an officer's responsibility to de-escalate situations when practical. The policy changes offer more comprehensive direction to cops about dealing with those in crisis and about calling in medical professionals when necessary.
In addition, the revised policy is more specific about the circumstances and what type of force may be used. It describes levels of behavior — ranging from compliance to passive resistance to aggravated aggression — that might prompt use of force, and it better defines acceptable police responses.
The Minneapolis Police Department has wisely taken similar steps. In mid-2016, officials revised department rules to emphasize "sanctity of life" and de-escalation tactics. In 2017, further revisions "strongly" discouraged officers from firing at, or from, moving vehicles and sought to hold officers accountable "if their actions unnecessarily place themselves [or others] in a deadly force situation."
A Minneapolis police union official balked at some of those changes, arguing that they were too vague and that they would remove officer discretion. Continued talks with police union officials, however, resulted in tightening some language but retaining basic tenets of accountability, according to a department spokesman.
The St. Paul and Minneapolis police departments are not unique in seeking change. Following high-profile, officer-involved deaths of African-American boys and men, police departments nationally have revisited use-of-force guidelines. Cities such as Baltimore, Chicago and Seattle have adopted similar changes.
Many of those police changes are based on best practices supported by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). And they incorporate findings from former President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Adopting clear, comprehensive policies can prevent injuries and save the lives of civilians and police officers. That's the most important reason to make the changes. In addition, better guidance and training can save cities and taxpayers money. Fewer officer-involved shootings mean fewer lawsuits and settlement payouts — legal outcomes that have cost St. Paul and Minneapolis and other cities millions of dollars.
St. Paul is moving in the right direction with its draft policy. Carter, the son of a retired St. Paul cop, called the revised policies an "important step forward to protect the sacred trust" between the community and police.
The Police Department is seeking public input before adopting the new rules. Citizens who care about improved police-community relations should watch for the times and dates of neighborhood feedback meetings and make their voices heard.
Editor's note: For more information and to review the draft, go to stpaul.gov/departments/police.