WASHINGTON — Police officers should aid anyone they hurt immediately. They should abandon a so-called 21-foot rule, which in some encounters with emotionally volatile people can result in fatal shootings. And they should follow standards higher than those set by the United States Supreme Court for using force.
This week, a group of law enforcement leaders made these recommendations and others to inspire a shift in policing practices after two years of questions being raised about the American criminal justice system.
About 200 of those leaders gathered here on Thursday and Friday to unveil principles they want to spread to the country’s more than 18,000 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. They include ways to defuse volatile encounters and avoid violence, document and track the use of force, train officers in more effective communication and, ultimately, repair trust in communities.
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“You’re slowly starting to see a change in the direction of the ship,” said Thomas J. Wilson, an official with the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy group that wrote the principles with help from officers across the country.
“We’ve got to get to the point where the average American cop thinks a little bit more,” Mr. Wilson added. “That’s the bottom line.”
The principles, 30 in all, come after nearly two years of research by the policy group, said its executive director, Chuck Wexler.
He surveyed 280 agencies last spring about training to de-escalate volatile situations. He brought a group of police leaders to Scotland in November to see how crime fighting is done by a mostly unarmed police force. And in December, he observed the tactics of New York Police Department’s Emergency Service Unit. Pushing the principles across the country is an acknowledgment that “we can do better,” said Allwyn Brown, the interim police chief in Richmond, Calif., who was on the Scotland trip.
No one knows precisely how often officers fire their weapons because that data is not kept uniformly. In New York City last year, there were 67 officer-involved shootings, a record low, with 33 of them considered “adversarial,” said Inspector John J. Sprague, who commands the New York Police Department’s Force Investigation Division. But policing has endured widespread condemnation and calls for reform since a series of deadly police encounters with unarmed black men and women, including the death of Eric Garner during an arrest on Staten Island, the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore and new revelations about the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago.
Mr. Wexler on Friday showed photos and played videos of some of the most high-profile killings by police officers, which he warned were “hard to watch.”
Collectively, they showed leaders the need for officers to “slow things down,” Chief Brown said, and use levels of force more proportional to the threats they face.
“My experience in Scotland sort of changed my lens, in terms of how I look at force incidents today,” he said. “Our cadence, leading up to the moment of truth, when force is used, seems like it can be a little fast.”
Some principles are rooted in common sense. But putting them in writing was necessary, many leaders said.
Principle No. 7, “respect the sanctity of life by promptly rendering first aid,” for instance, may seem routine for officers tending to someone injured as a result of their use of force — a baton blow, takedown or shooting. But it is not, as shown by a video of the fatal shooting last year of Walter L. Scott, an unarmed black man who was wounded and left unattended in North Charleston, S.C.
“Law enforcement doesn’t look like we’re trying to help people,” said Jeff Cotner, a deputy chief of the Dallas Police Department. “Your soul tells you, ‘I need to go up and help this person,’ but your training says, ‘No, you need to step back and preserve the crime scene.’ We’ve got to change that, and we know that.”
Other ideas are progressive. Principle No. 2 calls for use-of-force policies exceeding the legal standard of “objective reasonableness” outlined in the Supreme Court decision Graham v. Connor. Under the ruling, fatal shootings can be considered legal even if they are unnecessary or disproportional.
Asked by Mr. Wexler during a presentation on Friday about the push to go beyond the ruling, Vanita Gupta, the federal Justice Department’s top civil rights prosecutor, told the leaders, “I think it is quite revolutionary or transformative to put that out there.”
For decades, department guides have called for officers to create a “buffer zone” of 21 feet in the handling of emotionally disturbed persons armed with knives. But that concept, allowing for officers to use force if someone breaches that distance, can have fatal consequences.
“In many situations, a better outcome can result if officers can buy more time to assess the situation and their options, bring additional resources to the scene and develop a plan for resolving the incident without use of force,” principle No. 16 says.
Many leaders said some of the new principles — like one borrowed from Britain’s method of quickly analyzing and responding to volatile episodes — are already enmeshed in some ways in American policing.
“They talk about ‘spinning the model,’ ” said Brian Johnson, the deputy chief of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, referring to the step-by-step process that Scottish officers use to assess situations. “Our guys are already doing that, but they just didn’t know what to call it.”
Lt. Sean Patterson, of New York’s Emergency Service Unit, said that as he recently watched a video of Scottish constables managing a disorderly man, he turned to one of them, who was in the room with him, and mouthed the words, “It’s the exact same thing.”
“Now,” he said, “we have to see how we can have our patrol officers nationwide adopt the same practices.” His unit is an elite cadre, a small part of New York’s 35,000-member force.
Many departments, including the one in St. Paul, and federal agencies are already weaving the ideas into their policies, said Mr. Wexler.
George T. Buenik, the executive assistant chief of the Houston Police Department, said one of his department’s 24 police districts was poised to adopt the principles wholly, as part of a project to test them. Chief Brown said his entire force in Richmond, 185 officers, would give them a try.
Despite a familiarity with the ideas, and the enthusiasm of the leaders embracing them, there is bound to be resistance. Several officials said they expected police unions to fight the recommendations. Some of that reluctance would be born of the skepticism of national standards of any sort, whether in health care, education or policing, said Deputy Chief Johnson.
Next week, he is set to address the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police on what he has learned. Already, “the emails have come in to the executive director of the organization saying, ‘We can’t do this,’ ” he said. “And they haven’t even heard what I have to say.”