Baltimore Police Department announces changes to the "Use of Force" policy which hadn't been updated since 2003. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)
The Baltimore Police Department plans to implement a new use-of-force policy Friday that emphasizes the "sanctity of life," stresses de-escalation and requires officers to intervene if they see a fellow cop crossing the line.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced the new policy on Wednesday as the U.S. Department of Justice prepares to release the results of its sweeping investigation into the department's patterns and practices.
The first full rewrite of the policy since 2003 comes more than a year after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody — an incident that sparked widespread protests against police brutality, the Justice investigation and the prosecution of six officers.
Rawlings-Blake, who announced the policy changes alongside Police Commissioner Kevin Davis at police headquarters, said the use of force by officers is "one of the most scrutinized areas in policing, and it is incumbent upon the police department to ensure its officers are well trained and knowledgable about the procedures when a decision is made to use force."
Rawlings-Blake said city residents never tell her they want "an aggressive police department; they say they want an effective police department," which she said the changes would help create.
Davis said officers would be empowered by the clarity in the new policy, and said any suggestion the changes would inhibit officers from policing proactively was "just silly."
He said the policy would continue the department's recent progress. He said citizen complaints about excessive force were already down 40 percent to date this year.
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, the local union that represents rank-and-file officers, did not respond to a request for comment.
The Police Department revised the policy in consultation with outside groups and institutions including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, and local prosecutors and public defenders, officials said.
Police also drew on guidance on best practices from other departments nationwide, Davis said.
Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore NAACP and a participant in the discussions, said it was unfortunate that Gray had to die before changes were prioritized. But she believes the new policy is "a good thing."
"It's meaningful that they're starting to do something," she said. "The commissioner is trying to do things, expedite things and get it done."
David Rocah, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, said the new policy is "certainly an improvement" over the old one, but still has "significant problems."
The Baltimore Police Department "wants to be able to say they are adhering to best practices, but they aren't," Rocah said.
The new policy broadens reporting requirements for incidents in which an officer uses force. It defines three distinct categories of force — Levels 1, 2, and 3 — and the reporting requirements associated with each.
"There's really a focus on de-escalating when possible," said Jason Johnson, the department's new director of strategic development. "And also when force is necessary, that the force is proportional."
For the first time, the policy will require reporting when an officer points his gun at a suspect without shooting or flashes a Taser's electrical current without firing.
But Rocah said the new policy doesn't require officers who use deadly force to fill out a form, despite a recently passed state law requiring such action.
"That's critically important, and it's hugely problematic that that documentation doesn't exist," he said.
The policy requires officers to intervene to "prevent the use of excessive force by another member" of the department, and to immediately alert a supervisor to the incident. An officer who does not intervene to stop another's excessive force may be subject to disciplinary action.
But Rocah said it does not require officers to intervene to stop lesser force.
It also doesn't tell supervisors to ask officers who use force about that use of force, and doesn't restrict the use of Tasers and pepper-spray as much as it should, Rocah said. It also falls short or is not clear on a range of other points, he said.
The revised policy does require officers to call for a medic if an individual asks for or shows signs of needing one.
Gray requested a medic, but the officers on the scene said they didn't believe he actually needed one. A medic wasn't called until he was found unresponsive.
Gray died a week after his arrest from neck injuries suffered in the back of a police van. Six police officers were charged in his arrest and death.
All have pleaded not guilty. Two have been acquitted; four await trial.
Following Gray's death, Rawlings-Blake asked the Justice Department to launch a full-scale investigation into the Police Department's practices. The Justice Department had already been conducting a more narrow review of the department, also at the mayor's request, after a Baltimore Sun investigation showed that the city had paid millions of dollars to settle complaints of excessive force by its officers.
Rawlings-Blake acknowledged the Justice investigation and its looming report Wednesday, but said the steps the Police Department has taken are not a result of that investigation.
"Just because that investigation is going on doesn't mean we are going to sit on the sidelines and wait for them to tell us the things that are wrong," she said. "I've said before, we knew we had problems with the police department, we knew we had problems with the relationship between the community and the police."
Davis said the new policy would ensure that each use of force by an officer is entered into a "tracking database" that generates alerts that will help the department identify officers who may need intervention.
Johnson said the department would begin to post aggregate information about use-of-force cases on its website. The results of internal investigations into officers' actions are not made public.
He said officers have been getting training on the new use of force policy for weeks, and that all officers would be trained by its implementation Friday.
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Hill-Aston, of the NAACP, said Baltimoreans "saw right in the courtroom" during the trials of the officers charged in Gray's arrest and death that officers who aren't given clear policies and documented training can claim they were unaware of what was expected of them.
"All the changes that are coming about," she said, "will help."
But Rocah said the policy should be more straightforward.
"The policy should be when you use force, you report it. Period. End of discussion," he said. "That's simple. That's easy to understand. There's no quibbling. That would avoid confusion, which we've seen again and again in the Freddie Gray trials."