Police chiefs debate broad changes in tactics, training


– Roughly 200 of the nation’s most prominent police chiefs, Justice Department and White House officials, and police training experts convened in Washington on Friday to discuss policy proposals which, if implemented broadly, would amount to the most drastic police reform in decades.

During the forum, top officials from many of the nation’s largest police departments were urged to implement new training and departmental policies that supporters believe could lead to a decrease in the number of fatal shootings by officers each year — a topic near the top of the national consciousness in the 18 months since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

“This is a defining moment for us in policing,” said Charles Ramsey, the recently retired Philadelphia Police Department commissioner. Ramsey said departments must change their use of force policies.

Privately, several of those in attendance remarked that the shift in attitude of top police officials toward reform seems a direct result of the protests in Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago and elsewhere and the resulting increase in media scrutiny of police use of force.

“We need to raise the bar for all police departments,” said Chuck Wexler, who runs the Police Executive Research Forum, a policing think tank.

Accurate national statistics on fatal police shootings were unavailable until last year, when 987 fatal shootings by officers were documented.

The goal of an overhaul, organizers said, should be to address the large number of shootings that are “lawful but awful” in that they do not amount to a crime but that they spark community outrage and could have been prevented.

Among reforms discussed at length included retaining all officers in de-escalation tactics and abandoning training that teaches the “21-foot-rule” — a turn of phrase taught to nearly all current American police officers that is often interpreted by officers to mean they are justified in shooting any suspect with a knife or edged weapon who comes within 21 feet of them.

“It almost gets to the point that officers are thinking ‘my safety is more important than the safety of anyone else’s,’ ” said Tom Manger, chief of police in Montgomery County, Md. “We’ve got to change the culture of American policing. … Our goal should be to have everyone go home safely at the end of the day.”

How any given department handles an officer-involved shooting or other use of force incident varies depending on that department’s policies, union contracts and state laws.

Wexler proposed to the chiefs 30 “guiding principles,” which include prioritizing the preservation of human life, adopting de-escalation as formal policy, quickly releasing information about any use of force incident, and training officers that it is their duty to prevent another officer from using excessive force.