A consortium of police officers and researchers is promoting a plan to prevent so-called “lawful but awful” fatal shootings involving law enforcement. The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) has 30 recommendations for curtailing excessive force in the line of duty, from not shooting at vehicles to abandoning the “21-foot rule.”
The recommendations are contentious in many police departments. Denver Police Chief Robert White, a PERF board member, talks with Here & Now’s Robin Young about the recommendations and shifting police tactics.
Interview Highlights: Robert White
What was the 21-foot rule and how has it changed in your recommendations?
“Well, actually, I think the essence of the 21-foot rule, and the main reason for the change was, we just want people to stop, slow down, reassess what they’re doing, and if necessary to give themselves some room, and back away from the 21-foot rule. The 21-foot rule is something that has been in place for quite some time. If you’re within 21 feet of an individual who is armed, specifically with a knife, that person can respond quickly enough that you would be in a situation where you had to use deadly force.”
What you are suggesting in this case is not to engage, but rather to give yourself more room?
“Yeah, what many officers have been taught across the country is to react right away, and what we’re saying is that we want you to reassess the situation, slow down, move yourself from harm’s way, and then make a decision.”
What is the recommendation on the use of reasonable force?
“I would tell you for years, I and several other police chiefs in PERF have been saying that our officers are very well trained. I would tell you I’ve worked in several departments and in every last one of those departments, officers know the policies, they know the procedures, they know the rules. What has been happening in the community, part of the community has been supporting us, which is the great part of the community, and then some that are questioning everything that we do. They see these incidents that occur with officers involved in shootings, involved in serious incidents, individuals are losing their lives and a lot of citizens are asking ‘how come the officer didn’t get fired? How come the officer didn’t get suspended? How come the officer didn’t go to jail?’ Well, I will tell you in many instances, not all instances, but in many of those instances the officers’ actions were legal. While many are questioning the legality of those actions, I think what they’re really questioning, and what some of us even in law enforcement are questioning, while those actions were legal, the real question is were they necessary?”
So the old recommendations were focused on the fact they could shoot legally, but your recommendations are to think about whether you really have to use deadly force.
“Exactly, and one of the things that many of us really advocate, teach and speak about aggressively in our departments is just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s necessary, and what you have seen lately across the nations as relates to people exercising their rights there, Second Amendment and First Amendment rights, First Amendment rights are predominantly demonstrating and really expressing frustration with the police is because a lot of the action that officers have taken. From a legal perspective, they’ve been appropriate. Not only do we want your actions to be legal, we want your actions to be absolutely necessary.”
Is this where proportionality comes in?
“Yes, that is certainly something that plays a significant part in the decision making process. We want you to make decisions that are proportionate with the actions you are being confronted with.”
Some officers are against this measure because they feel that you don’t ‘have their back.’
“You know what, we absolutely have their back. I think what has happened of late in law enforcement is policing has changed, but the police haven’t changed. Really what we’re attempting to do, what PERF is attempting to do and what many administrators in law enforcement are trying to do is have the police changes be consistent with the expectations of the community. We want police officers to go home to their families at the end of the day, but you know what else we want to happen? We want those individuals we are confronting in those dangerous situations to be able to go home, or to go to court, or to go to jail at the end of the day also. That means that we really want you to think about what you are doing, and before you use deadly force, we really want you to evaluate the situation and make it something that is not just legal, but is also something that is absolutely necessary.”
On the idea that having the officers consider ‘what would the public think?’ could be a hazard to them in the field.
“I would disagree with that. I think if we train officers, give them the proper training, and if we train them – and we have raised the bar and I think there are individuals that are questioning us raising the bar above what the Constitution or the law requires us to do – but I think if we raise the bar and we provide them with the appropriate training to go along with whatever instructions we are giving them, it becomes instant. You know, officers are very well trained, and officers respond to their training when they are confronted in these critical situations. So I really think the answer to ‘what would the public think?’ I think that needs to be part of our training. So when we train officers and when we train them to respond, we should factor in how this is going to look in the court of law, because ultimately when something goes wrong and it gets to a court, they are going to be judged by their peers and the peers are the citizens in this community.”
On the duty of an officer to intervene if he or she sees another officer doing something they know is wrong.
“We have a responsibility. If we see an officer doing something wrong, and I will tell you that every place that I have worked in across the country, 99 percent of officers come to work, they do the right thing for the right reasons. It only takes one or two incidents where some officer is doing something that is inappropriate. So yeah, we do have a responsibility and we do hold our officers accountable, that if you see something that an officer is doing that is a discredit towards a police department and is a discredit to the community and a violation of the law, they absolutely have a responsibility to intervene, by bringing it to the attention of a supervisor.
Do you think Denver will adopt similar situational diffusion methods as officers in Scotland, such as backing away from the perpetrator with hands in the air?
“It depends on the scenario. If that is the appropriate action to take that is going to protect the police, protect the individual that is creating that situation, protect the citizens at large; if that’s the appropriate thing, fine. If it is not the appropriate thing to do, I would expect they would take whatever action, the minimum amount of action to deescalate the situation. I am certainly not advocating and PERF is not advocating, we are not advocating that our officers not be armed with a firearm, because the reality of it is there are over 300 million firearms in our country, very much unlike Scotland, but what we are advocating is that officers use the appropriate force for addressing the appropriate issue. I think, again, it is very important that we’re not saying take away the guns from the police, especially in a society that is heavy on the Second Amendment. What we’re advocating is that when officers are confronted with something that does not require the use of a service weapon, they should not be using a service weapon.”
- Robert White, chief of police for the city of Denver, Colorado, and a board member of the Police Executive Research Forum.