CLEVELAND — A proposed policy announced Thursday calls for police to attempt “de-escalation” techniques that include taking cover before using force against people, a tactic that might have spared the life of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who had been playing with a pellet gun when he was fatally shot by a patrol officer.
Changing how Cleveland police officers use lethal and non-lethal force is a key element in an agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice to reform the police department. The two sides agreed to a court-monitored consent decree in May 2015 after a DOJ investigation found a pattern and practice of officers using excessive force and violating people’s civil rights.
Tamir was shot by patrolman Timothy Loehmann within two seconds of a police cruiser skidding to a stop near him outside a recreation center where he had been seen playing with the pellet gun in November 2014. Loehmann and partner Frank Garmback, who drove the cruiser, were criticized for not stopping sooner, which might have given them time to assess the situation first. They were responding to a report about a man waving a gun and pointing it at people, but they weren’t told the caller had said the man was likely a juvenile and the gun likely wasn’t real.
Loehmann and Garmback were cleared of criminal wrongdoing. Cleveland agreed this year to settle a federal lawsuit filed by Tamir’s family for $6 million.
Attorney Matthew Barge heads the independent monitoring team overseeing the implementation of reforms in the city.
“We’ve got to put the focus on officers de-escalating situations and giving them the tools and training to do so,” he said.
Barge said officers must learn to think more strategically and, in some cases, not chase armed suspects without backup.
“They need to learn to manage situations in a way that doesn’t get them killed or injured,” Barge said.
U.S. District Court Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. has the final say before the new policies are put into place.
The rules were written by Cleveland officials after seeking input from an oversight panel called the Community Police Commission, officers and the monitoring team, Barge said. While the policies could undergo changes after the public and the DOJ are given a chance to comment, they are largely based on requirements in the consent decree, he added.
Under current policy, officers can employ force, including using firearms, if they determine it’s “objectively reasonable” to do so, meaning it’s an action an average officer would take given the situation. The proposed new policy says force must be necessary and “proportional” to the threat an officer faces.
Barge said the new policy would align with best practices being implemented across the country. He acknowledged officers sometimes find themselves in situations in which they must take immediate action, but he said he hoped techniques to defuse situations without using physical force would become embedded in their approach to the job.
The proposed new rules say officers are prohibited from firing warning shots or shooting at moving vehicles unless they believe they need to stop a deadly threat to the public or to other officers. Officers would no longer be allowed to reach inside vehicles, which can put them in harm’s way. Officers also would be prohibited from using chokeholds on suspects and would be required to provide first aid to people they injure and to call for emergency medical personnel in most of those circumstances.
Guidelines for using de-escalation techniques and intermediate weapons such as batons, pepper spray and stun guns are contained in separate directives from the overall use-of-force policy, which Barge said is shorter than the existing orders and clarifies what officers can and cannot do.
The DOJ investigation found instances in which officers struck people with their firearms, used stun guns to inflict pain on handcuffed suspects and used force to retaliate against people they perceived as being disrespectful.