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New England News

Columbia Law Prof. Analyzes Pittsfield Police Use Of Force Policy

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Alexis Hoag
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Alexis Hoag

This week, Pittsfield, Massachusetts Police Chief Michael Wynn said his department is reviewing its use of force policy to make sure it’s "consistent with federal standards and best practices." WAMC spoke with Alexis Hoag, Practitioner in Residence at Columbia University's Eric Holder Initiative for Civil & Political Rights civil rights lawyer and lecturer at Columbia Law School, about the department’s current policies and federal standards.

HOAG: Yeah, in reviewing Pittsfield's use of force policy, it appears quite in line with many departments. And I think it's important in the wake of the national demonstrations as a result of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor's and other individuals' deaths at the hands of police, that departments look at their internal policies. We have 18,000 police departments in this country, and Pittsfield is very well situated to do a hard look at their own. And what I notice is that the police department called for sort of a "duty to intervene", which is something that the Minneapolis Police Department is instituting now in the wake of the events related to George Floyd murder. So what I didn't note is any discussion of bias and the way that racial bias plays into use of force. Police officers are allowed to use lethal force when they reasonably believe that their life is in danger, and perhaps when a victim's life is in danger. However, in this country, and I argue that this is a direct holdover from slavery, there is an automatic assumption that black and brown people are dangerous and criminals. And so I don't see any discussion of that in the use of force policy within Pittsfield's department. And even though there's a relatively small demographic of black and brown individuals in the community, it's something that needs to be embedded into the language of the policy.

WAMC: As these conversations about reform go on across the country, are you seeing any departments put forward a particularly appropriate response to those concerns that you just raised about racial bias?

Yes, and it appears in other areas of a police manual and in their operations, and I think the first step is actually data collection. It's hard to address a problem if you haven't correctly identified what it is. And I noticed in looking at the statistics that the department collects on crime rates, there is no mention of a suspect's race. And so in terms of who is getting arrested, who is being processed through the criminal legal system, who is on the receiving end of force, I think, as it exists, as I understand, is not publicly available. And that is the first step, is actually identifying, do we have a problem in in Pittsfield? What is what is the nature of the problem, if we have one? And these are very hard issues to address without that basic threshold information.

To a lay person reading over the use of force policies, they struck me as somewhat broad in the application of force by officers. Can you sort of explicate that for me, how broad are these standards as they exist today?

They're quite broad. It enables a deadly application of force if the officer reasonably believes they would be an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury. So that tells me that an officer can use lethal force against the suspect if the officer believes they are at risk of serious bodily injury. And I want to break that down for our listeners: this is a suspect, this is not anyone who has been processed through the criminal legal system. And so if the officer believes that they are at risk of serious bodily injury, they can essentially kill this suspect. And for that officer to feel threatened to then be empowered, to essentially execute a suspect without a grand jury indictment, without a trial, without a conviction, without a sentence- That raises red flags to me.

I spoke with the chief of the police department, Michael Wynn, and he said that their review of the policy would seek to bring it up to "federal standards and best practices." What exactly is the status quo for federal standards and best practices? And does it line up with the concerns that you've raised prior to our conversation about use of force policies broadly?

Federal standards currently are a moving target. The Democrats in both the Senate and the House met this past weekend to discuss a Justice in Policing Act, and I imagine that the contours and the language of that proposed bill are changing on a moment by moment basis. In some ways the federal government is well situated to create, explicate standards for policing. They can withhold funding to local departments if local departments don't bring their policies and practices up to standard, up to speed. They can mandate the sort of data collection I mentioned earlier about the use of force: break it down by race, break it down by by age and gender of the suspect. However local police departments are the best situated. It's hard for the federal government to mandate policies for a community like Pittsfield, which has a population of approximately 42,000, relative, you know, to New York City, which has millions of residents. And so it's important that it's not just the federal government that is working on these issues, but it's the local communities, like Pittsfield, is taking a hard look, which I understand is happening. What the federal government can do and should do, I understand is happening is take a look at the legal mechanisms, that victims of police violence, police misconduct, the remedies that they can seek. And so right now, there are certain affirmative defenses that government officials, that police officers can raise to shield themselves from liability, and the federal government is is looking at removing them. I'm speaking specifically of qualified immunity. So I do commend the Pittsfield department for looking towards the federal government for instruction, but I also want to remind the viewers that it's really the the community on the ground that's in the best position to come up with what's right for for their their residents and how best to keep the members of Pittsfield safe.

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