Harrisburg’s Use-of-Force Policy Bans Several Controversial Police Techniques

Harrisburg’s Use-Of-Force Policy Bans Several Controversial Police Techniques

By Christine Vendel | cvendel@pennlive.com

September 01, 2016 at 6:45 AM, updated September 01, 2016 at 7:35 AM

HARRISBURG—The Harrisburg Police Department’s use of force policy bans several controversial practices, such as neck restraints or hog-tying suspects, and it restricts officers from firing at moving vehicles except under very limited circumstances.

The city of Harrisburg provided the policy to PennLive this week, fulfilling an Aug. 9 Right-to-Know request.

PennLive asked to see the policy after a Harrisburg police officer used deadly force in an Aug. 7 domestic incident involving Earl Shaleek Pinckney, 20, who reportedly had been threatening to kill his mother with a knife. The shooting, which remains under investigation, generated interest in the training, policies and guidance provided to police officers.

The 13-page policy bans the controversial practices of neck restraints, sometimes known as chokeholds, and hog-tying of suspects by handcuffing their hands and feet behind their back. Both techniques have been associated with arrest-related deaths across the country.

The restrictions on firing at moving vehicles also addresses another controversial practice that can increase risks to bystanders as well as inflate the number of people killed by police.

If a police officer shoots a driver, there is no guarantee that the car will come to safe stop, Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, told the Wall Street Journal last year.

New York banned the practice 40 years ago and since then, fatal police shootings plummeted. Also, not a single officer has been killed by a driver trying to run over an officer since then, Wexler told the Wall Street Journal.

Wexler’s organization earlier this year published 30 guidelines for police use of force after 18 months of study that were designed to reduce unnecessary uses of force in situations that do not involve suspects with guns.

Harrisburg’s use-of-force policy already touches on several of the recommendations, but doesn’t go as far in many cases. The city policy limits shooting at moving vehicles, for example, but doesn’t prohibit it outright.

The city’s policy also requires documentation of all use of force incidents, as PERF recommends, including if officers point a gun or stun gun at someone. But Harrisburg doesn’t insist that those incidents to be reported to the public, which is one of PERF’s recommendations.

Was deadly force justified in shooting of Earl Pinckney?

Was deadly force justified in shooting of Earl Pinckney?

After Harrisburg police fatally shot Earl Shaleek Pinckney, 20, in a domestic dispute Sunday, questions have been raised about whether the death could have been avoided.

PERF also advocates for policies that specifically emphasize the “sanctity of life,” stress de-escalation as agency policy and require that officers intervene if a colleague uses excessive force.

The city police mission statement emphasizes safeguarding the  “constitutional rights of all citizens, including those prosecuted for crimes.”

Harrisburg’s standard for use-of force also mirrors the state’s law in that it allows officers to “only use such force as is ‘objectively reasonable’ under all of the circumstances.”

The policy provides a list of several factors that could be used to determine the reasonableness of force, including:

The severity of the crime at issue,

Whether a subject poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officer or others;

Whether the subject is actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade arrest by flight;

The influence of drugs/alcohol or the mental capacity of the subject, and

The proximity or access to weapons to the subject.

“Our use of force policy is pretty current,” said Police Chief Thomas Carter. “I’m happy that use of force policies are being looked at and reviewed nationwide. We review our use of force policy every couple months, based on new case law, the current climate of country, and based on incidents.”

Police Detective Jason Brinker, president of the city’s police union, said the department’s use of force policy, which was last updated in 2013, covers what it needs to cover.

“Use of force should only cover use of force,” he said, adding that topics such as “the sanctity of life” and stressing de-escalation would be better covered in training and mission statements.

“If you’re talking about the sanctity of life, you don’t want it only considered in use-of-force situations, because 99 percent of the time, officers never use force,” Brinker said. “You want that to be a guiding principle, so it’s in every general order (or policy.)”

Brinker also said a provision to require officers to intervene if another officer uses excessive force could be more complicated than it seems, especially in incidents where it may not be clear that force was excessive until after-the-fact.

Officers are already required to act if they see a crime being committed, he said. An officer kicking a handcuffed man, for example, would be easy to identify as excessive and also considered a crime. But other situations could be more problematic, he said.

“I’m not sold on that, until it is defined better,” Brinker said of the provision. “At what point do you intervene? An officer and a suspect are engaged in fight and then you have another officer fighting with the officer? You have to be specific on how that would work.”

HarriSburg’s policy does mention de-escalation, but it may not go as far as the PERF guidelines, which suggest policy statements that make it clear that de-escalation is the preferred, tactically sound approach.

Harrisburg’s policy instructs officers to assess each incident they encounter to determine which use of force option “will deescalate the situation and bring it under control in a safe and prudent manner, or stop the actions of the aggressor.”

The Dauphin County District Attorney’s office investigates all intentional incidents where city police officers fire their guns, according to Harrisburg’s policy.

The District Attorney’s office is still analyzing the legality of the Pinckney shooting. City officials, meanwhile, are examining the shooting to see if it complied with department policies.

Harrisburg’s Use-of-Force Policy Bans Several Controversial Police Techniques

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