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Denver police department becomes the latest to rethink use-of-force policies

The Denver police department is rewriting its use-of-force policies to encourage officers to use the minimal amount of force necessary, the department chief said Wednesday. 

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Denver Police Department officers head out to their patrol car after roll call for the swing shift in District 6 in downtown Denver on Monday, July 18, 2016.

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The Denver Police Department has become the latest to rethink its use-of-force policies, rewriting a portion of its operations manual to reflect recommendations made by national policing experts, police chief Robert White said Wednesday. 

Rather than informing officers of what they are legally allowed to do, the revised policies will encourage police to use the minimum amount of force necessary by providing specific scenarios and decisionmaking guidelines detailing how to react when met with resistance, Chief White told the Denver Post. 

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The Denver police follow the Denver Sheriff Department – which earlier this year overhauled its use-of-force policy to set a more restrictive standard – as well as departments in cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore that have begun to examine use-of-force policies with a more critical eye. The reforms come amid protests and demands for reform following a series of high-profile police shootings of black men. 

But those on both sides of policing – officers and the communities they serve – agree that the use-of-force policies in place in many departments aren't sufficient. 

Reform is necessary "because what we've seen across the country are incidents of excessive use of force by police, particularly against people of color," says Sam Sinyangwe, a founder of police reform advocacy effort Campaign Zero, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "What’s important to understand is that there are rules around how and when police use force, and oftentimes those rules do not contain sufficient protections against the types of conduct we've seen." 

Adding specific restrictions and guidelines on actions such as shooting at moving vehicles, using chokeholds on suspects, and issuing verbal warnings before shootings, he says, ensures that "police will be held to higher standards." 

At the same time, says Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former Baltimore City Police Officer, officers would benefit from more clarity in use-of-force policies. 

Many departments' rules on when to use force are vague, he tells the Monitor in a phone interview, and only tell officers what not to do rather than offering specific guidelines for how to react in difficult situations. 

Among police, Dr. Moskos says, "the status quo, generally, is it's seen that the rule book in each city is purely to punish cops." Therefore, he adds, many officers would likely "welcome something that isn’t as retributive and selectively used." 

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But crafting an effective use-of-force policy is easier said than done. The tricky thing about such policies, experts say, is that no size fits all, making sweeping reform difficult. 

"Some policies are better at reducing injuries, other policies are better at improving public perception," William Terrill, who teaches in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, told the Monitor's Nicole Orttung in July. "You can't come up with a universal policy so usually it's about making incremental changes and constantly assessing them, ideally, every one to two years." 

It's too soon to say whether the policy reforms in Denver and other cities have, and will, effectively reduce casualties and improve the relationship between officers and their communities. As Mr. Sinyangwe of Campaign Zero points out, rewriting policy books are "just the first step." 

"The important part is, how are they being implemented?" he says. "How are they trickling down to police officers on the front line, and how is it that they are being enforced?" 

While Moskos is hesitant to assume that the rewritten use-of-force policies in Denver will translate into significant change, he notes that "police culture can change, and does change, often quicker than people realize in response to outside and internal pressures." 

"At some point, something does make a difference," he adds.