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Stonington mandates police intervene during unjustified use of force

Stonington — The Board of Police Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to implement a policy that requires officers to verbally or physically intervene when a fellow officer violates the department’s use-of-force policy.

The policy also formally bans chokeholds, unless it is necessary to protect the officer or another person from serious physical injury or death, or to apprehend or prevent the escape of someone who has committed, or is about to commit, a crime involving the death or serious physical injury of another person.

“We’re trying to be responsible and responsive in light of the recent events across the country,” Capt. Todd Olson said. “It’s something we feel needs to be done with what’s been happening.”

Three police officers in Minneapolis, Minn., have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder after video showing they took no action to stop fellow officer Derek Chauvin from holding his knee on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes, killing him on May 25. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. Outrage over the three officers' inaction as well as Chauvin's actions have prompted two weeks of massive protests in communities across the country.

Olson and Chief J. Darren Stewart said that here, as like in almost all departments, chokeholds are never taught in training as an acceptable method of taking someone into custody. In addition, Olson said that during training scenarios officers are taught how to take over when a fellow officer might be “emotionally charged” due to their participation in an incident such as pursuit or being assaulted. But these instructions were never part of official department policy.

Olson said the new policy will be sent to officers to review before it is implemented. As with any department policy, a violation would involve an internal investigation followed by possible discipline by Stewart. Stewart said the police academy will soon require all departments to adopt such a policy.

"We're trying to get ahead of this," he said.

He said the academy already teaches officers that they are responsible not only for their own actions but the actions of other officers and if one "steps over the line," it's the others' responsibility to stop that officer. He added there is federal case law on officers' duty to intervene.

The policy adopted Thursday states that department members are obligated to ensure that they and other members comply with its regulations and policies, as well as state and federal law. Any department member who directly observes a use of force that is excessive or otherwise violates the department’s use-of-force policy and/or violates state or federal law must contact a supervisor as soon as practicable.

“Except in extraordinary circumstances, the officer will act to intervene and stop the unreasonable, or illegal use of force by another police officer,” the policy states, adding that actions to stop the force include “verbally intervening to stop the violation or physically intervening to protect that person’s safety.”

If the officer is a supervisor, he or she will issue a direct order to stop the violation.

In addition, department members who have knowledge of excessive, unreasonable or illegal use of force against a person must notify a supervisor and submit a written incident report to a supervisor before the end of the shift.

The policy also prohibits any form of retaliation against a department member for reporting a use of force that violates the department policy or for cooperating with any internal investigation of a complaint.

The policy states that the level of force used by an officer is dictated by the suspect’s actions. Officers must “make all reasonable efforts to use de-escalation and calming techniques consistent with their training before resorting to force and to decrease the use of force.”

They also must “make all reasonable efforts to allow an individual time and opportunity to react to verbal commands before force is used.”

It adds that the only time a reasonable effort to de-escalate the situation should be affected is when the delay will compromise the safety of the officer or another, evidence can be destroyed, a suspect can escape or a crime is imminent.

As for chokeholds, the policy also states that “a chokehold or restraint to the neck area may only be employed in those situations where there is no other reasonable use of force alternative available to the officer.”

If an officer uses a chokehold or neck restraint, intentionally or inadvertently, it must be removed as soon as another use-of-force method can be safely employed. The suspect also must be checked for signs of medical distress by medical personnel as soon as possible.

Officers are required to fill out a detailed form any time they use force. The forms also are submitted to the state. A review by The Day of use-of-force reports in the region shows that Stonington officers have used force on 32 occasions since June 2017 to take people into custody. A review of each incident by a supervisor justified the use of force.

Over the three-year period, the department received no civilian complaints about use of force.

There was one incident in which an officer deployed his stun gun to subdue a man and another in which an officer used a baton to strike a man in the back of his leg. These two incidents and three other incidents of force all involved the same Pawcatuck man, who reports show often fights with police when they respond to disturbances at his home.

Most of the reports involved officers physically grappling with people or taking them to the ground when they resist arrest.

On three occasions, officers drew their guns but did not fire, holstering them after a suspect was taken into custody. One involved a man who had allegedly stabbed his girlfriend, who later died, and who police say tried to run down a responding officer. The officer did not fire his weapon after jumping away from the car.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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