Raleigh police told to defuse situations before resorting to force. Is new policy enough?

  • In US
  • 2023-01-30 12:00:00Z
  • By Raleigh News and Observer

A new policy dictates that when a Raleigh police officer asks someone to comply with their orders - such as dropping a weapon - they'll be required to try to defuse the situation first before pulling out a weapon.

After Raleigh police fatally shot two people last year, Police Chief Estella Patterson approved a new de-escalation policy late last year. The two-page policy describes what officers should do to encourage someone to obey police orders voluntarily instead of resorting to deadly force. While it doesn't define specific tactics that should be used, it covers a variety of scenarios where a person may struggle to follow an officer's commands, such as a mental health crisis or a language barrier.

Last year's fatal shootings in two separate incidents came after officers encountered those types of situations, family members and activists say.

Police released the policy in December following six listening sessions to gather public input from residents. Capt. Eric Goodwin said at a public meeting in December that the policy describes "the expectation of everybody that wears the badge," according to ABC11, The N&O's newsgathering partner. Goodwin, the project manager for the policy, did not respond to The News & Observer's requests for an interview.

The policy calls for training to reduce the likelihood of police using deadly force. That training will begin later this year, police spokesperson Lt. Jason Borneo said. The policy defines the role of a supervisor if they're present during such situations.

"By acting in concert with these instructions, we will demonstrate that we are accountable for our actions and that we have the highest possible regard for safeguarding life, including the lives of those persons we come into contact with, of innocent people, and of ourselves," according to the policy, which states that it will be renewed annually.

Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin said the department is training officers to "use the least amount of force possible." That includes the police chief's emphasis on using Tasers as a de-escalation tool, Baldwin told The N&O in a text message last week.

Latest Raleigh police fatality

However, a man died in Raleigh police custody on Jan. 17 after being tased three times. Police said they were trying to arrest Darryl Williams in a parking lot on Rock Quarry Road for possession of a substance consistent with cocaine.

While the investigation into Williams' death is ongoing, a report released by the chief on Jan. 23 claims Williams became "combative" and "resistant" when police tried to arrest him.

The report describes several struggles between Williams and officers, and a police officer warning him he would get tased if he didn't cooperate.

Williams told police "I have heart problems" after being tased twice, the report states.

An autopsy report has not yet been released.

What does the Raleigh de-escalation policy entail?

Even before the two shootings in Raleigh, police had applied for a federal grant in 2021 for at least $118,000 to help pay for the development of a de-escalation training curriculum for sworn and non-sworn officers.

Departments across the country reviewed their protocols and policies following the 2020 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Raleigh, for example, adopted the "8 Can't Wait" reforms that, among other things, included a ban on chokeholds while using force.

As part of the training, police were asked to review its definition of "de-escalation."

"The RPD will build upon this definition to establish an overall philosophy of de-escalation, and it will also create a de-escalation policy that communicates this philosophy and further promotes the value of the sanctity of human life," Borneo said.

The policy instructs officers to consider a range of factors that may affect a person's ability to comply with police commands: a language barrier, medical conditions, mental impairment, intoxication, developmental disability or physical limitation.

"When time and circumstances reasonably permit, an officer(s) should consider whether a subject's lack of compliance is a deliberate attempt to resist or is the result of an inability to comply," the policy states.

The policy also describes an accountability process and the role of a supervisor or officer in charge in a situation when responding to "difficult, dynamic, challenging and evolving situations."

Supervisors are instructed to assess whether officers should disengage, have another officer take over or use force.

"At an appropriate time and when it is feasible," supervisors are instructed to determine whether or not officers are following the de-escalation guidelines and refer officers to "remedial" training if it's determined that they aren't following their training.

Policy comes after 2022 Raleigh police shootings

The fatal shootings of Daniel Turcios last January and Reuel Rodriguez-Núñez in May brought public scrutiny to the police department's use of deadly force and de-escalation tactics.

Family members and activists asked why police did not try to defuse the situations before shooting the men.

In both cases, officers shot at the men after they would not drop their weapons after multiple commands. Turcios swung his knife at police and Rodriguez-Núñez threw a cup of flammable liquid at an officer, almost hitting him, police said. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman found officers acted lawfully in both cases, The N&O reported previously.

But in the case of Turcios, family members said the 43-year-old man was disoriented following a car accident that preceded the confrontation with police. They said the El Salvador native didn't understand police commands to drop a knife and that officers didn't try to talk with him calmly before shooting him.

With the May 7 case of Rodriguez-Núñez, the shooting received criticism after one of the four officers at the scene was heard on body camera footage taunting the 37-year-old.

The new de-escalation policy states an officer "should not antagonize or bait a person that could result in an unwarranted escalation."

Rodriguez-Núñez had arrived outside of a southeast Raleigh police station in a minivan and started setting police cars on fire with cups of flammable liquid (referred to as molotov cocktails by police), The N&O previously reported.

He had a history of mental illness and was likely having a mental health crisis, according to his family members.

Three officers initially spoke at him from a distance, without their weapons drawn, telling him to "calm down" and "you don't have to do this."

A fourth, identified as Officer P.W. Coates, was heard on body-worn cameras shouting "Do it! Do it!" and expletives, which conflicted with the other officers' actions.

Rodriguez-Núñez was mostly unresponsive while surrounded by officers during the six-minute confrontation. But after he threw the weapon toward Coates, almost hitting him, they fired 30 rounds.

The four officers were placed on paid administrative leave. Coates was suspended on Oct. 11 last year, personnel records show. That came the day after Freeman issued her report on whether the officers' actions were lawful. Police said that the reason for the suspension was not public record.

All of the officers have resumed duty, the police department told The N&O in an email. The results of their investigation are not public record.

Is the de-escalation policy enough?

Borneo said the listening sessions informed changes that were made to the policy, adding that there were "significant changes" made based on input from the Raleigh Police Advisory Board. He did not specify what those changes were.

Kerwin Pittman, a Raleigh activist with police accountability group Emancipate NC, attended some of the listening sessions but said he's dissatisfied with the final policy. He said the language used to guide officers, such as "time and circumstances" and "when feasible to do so," remains too vague.

"I think it's great they put forth something," Pittman said. "But we know that when things aren't specific in policies, it leaves room for interpretation of the officers. A lot of the times, this is where mistakes come in and lives are lost."

Pittman and Emancipate NC organized press conferences with the families of Turcios and Rodriguez-Núñez to demand accountability from Raleigh police.

"If you lack specificity, you lack accountability," he said.

Keith Taylor, a professor at John Jay College for Criminal Justice, reviewed Raleigh's policy at The N&O's request. He agreed with Pittman that a set of specific guidelines of what police officers should and shouldn't do is a crucial component that's missing from Raleigh's policy.

"The parameters should not be blurry. They should be sharp, they should be clear," said Taylor, a former New York City police detective, in an interview. "But in terms of guidelines for officers as well as guidance for the public, it would be better if they are more definitive in terms of what the officer must do, or must not do."

Taylor compared it to New York Police Department's de-escalation policy, which he says includes "a more comprehensive, cogent explanation of what officers can and cannot do." The NYPD's 2016 use-of-force guidelines also states that a review board will keep the department accountable.

Taylor said it's important that rules from Raleigh police's departmental procedures be added to its policy.

"(Critics) want officers to have a perspective that really reflects conservative use of force and an abundant use of methods that will divert having that confrontational situation in the first place," he said. "The next steps will be reflecting this in a more comprehensive way to include other types of use."

Emancipate NC addressed the policy's draft policy in a Nov. 17 memo, comparing Raleigh's proposal to the de-escalation policies of the Seattle Police Department and Oregon State University Department of Public Safety.

"Relative to examples provided to Emancipate NC by an experienced policing expert, RPD's proposed policy is too narrow in its objective; lacks specific, descriptive, and step-by-step instructions for executing de-escalation properly; and in multiple cases offers caveats or loopholes that suggest de-escalation is simply a precursor to officers' inevitable use of force," the memo reads.

In another follow-up memo, Emancipate NC called the outcome "the draft policy with only minor revisions."

"I think we need to see and measure results," Baldwin told The N&O. "We'll be looking at outcomes. And our officers are held accountable for their actions."


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