U.S. Justice Dept. reviews use-of-force policies, procedures
By Ed Runyan
The U.S. Justice Department, in a review of the Warren Police Department’s use-of-force policies and procedures, is both complimentary and critical of the police department’s efforts.
A 36-page report compliments police Chief Eric Merkel for resolving “long-pending policies for use of force” that remained after Tim Bowers had retired as police chief in June, but it calls compliance with some policies “lackadaisical.”
Changes in the department’s use-of-force policies were mandated in a settlement between the city and Justice Department in 2012, after nearly a decade of investigation of complaints by citizens and a finding by Justice officials that the department carried out unconstitutional policing.
Among the achievements noted in the report is that the police department now has policies in place for use of stun guns, tactical batons and pepper spray, and has trained all of its officers in their use.
The department, however, “still needs to improve its use-of-force reviews to ensure that all uses of force [match] the approved policy and constitutional standards.”
The Justice Department said the department had done a better job in getting a supervisor involved promptly when a use-of-force issue arose — to “examine the subject for injury, interview the subject and ensure that the subject receives needed medical attention.”
The situations reviewed by the Justice Department during its visit in September show “a significant step forward and provides senior-level [police department] reviewers with more data for assessing the objective reasonableness of the uses of force,” the Justice Department said.
The report says, however, reviews of use of force by the captain in charge of patrol officers, Tim Roberts, indicated a “significant shortcoming” because he “almost never applied correct legal or policy standards” in his reviews.
“This executive’s lackadaiscal approach to use-of-force reviews flowed downward to intermediate and direct supervisors who often likewise failed to assess force” correctly, the report said.
The department must evaluate use of force as to whether it is “objectively reasonable” or not, the report says. The objectively reasonable standard was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1989 landmark ruling on law enforcement use of force.
The Justice Department said Roberts “nearly uniformly” labeled officer use of force as “minimal,” instead of indicating whether it was objectively reasonable given the information the officer had, “nor did he reconcile inconsistencies in officers’ statements about some uses of force.”
The department carried out additional training after the Justice Department first pointed out the problem several months ago.
Merkel said Monday the “objectively reasonable” issue was primarily a matter of “using the wrong word” and felt the report was mostly positive.
The Justice Department said the police department is doing a good job of making officer-complaint forms available to the public and it has made a “vast improvement” in completing use-of-force reports.
In the past, it was “clearly indicated that officers shared their narratives” when asked to report on use of force, but “officers are now authoring their own narratives,” the report said.
The department needs to do a better job of providing photographs of injuries caused by use of force and needs to provide electronic data from stun guns used against citizens, the report said.
The report said internal-affairs investigations of complaints by citizens should more consistently involve an interview with the person filing the complaint rather than relying only on what was provided in a complaint form.