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Activists criticize St. Louis police policy on use of force

Teddy bears line the fence of the flat where Mansur Ball-Bey was killed earlier this week.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Teddy bears line the fence of the flat where Mansur Ball-Bey was killed by St. Louis city police in August 2015.

The St. Louis police department’s use of force policy is receiving poor marks from an advocacy group working to end excessive police violence.

Campaign Zero, a group that includes Ferguson activists Brittany Packnett, Johnetta Elzie and DeRay McKesson, gives the department credit for prioritizing preservation of life, but says St. Louis’ policy fails to set sufficient limitations.

“What’s interesting in use of force policies is that often times it’s what’s not mentioned that’s problematic,” said Sam Sinyangwe, Campaign Zero’s data analyst.

Sinyangwe compared St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s use of force policy with the policies in 16 other large cities for Campaign Zero’s initial police use of force project.

Sinyangwe said that Las Vegas and Seattle police departments include large sections on de-escalation in their use of force policies, but St. Louis doesn’t.

“When it came to St. Louis there just was not language around de-escalation. So there was no encouragement, there was no advisement, there was no requirement that officers use de-escalation tactics in order to create time and space between themselves and the subject,” Sinyangwe said.

Campaign Zero also criticized the St. Louis department for not banning choke holds for not requiring officers to intervene when other officers use excessive force in their presence, issues that Packnett said the group selected because they played roles in prominent national examples of police violence.

“So, Eric Garner being choked to death is an example. Situations where there have been two officers on duty like when Walter Scott was killed and one officer failed to intervene when the other officer was engaging in excessive force,” Packnett said.

While the St. Louis region’s most prominent case of police violence occurred in St. Louis County, not the city of St. Louis, Packnett said Campaign Zero first wanted to focus on large cities, because more people of color live in large cities nationwide.

The grandmother of Kajieme Powell holds a sign on the steps of the Carnahan Courthouse as a speaker shouts in a bullhorn Wed. Aug. 19, 2015. Powell died one year ago Wed.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
The grandmother of Kajieme Powell holds a sign on the steps of the Carnahan Courthouse as a speaker shouts in a bullhorn Wed. Aug. 19, 2015. Powell was killed by St. Louis city police in August 2014.

Packnett is a resident of St. Louis County so she said the county’s use of force policy is personally important to her. Still, Packnett said the city has also had a number of police-involved killings in recent years and that “it’s important that we don’t forget to take a magnifying glass to what’s happening within St. Louis city limits.”

According to criminal justice professor Dave Klinger with the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the most essential parts of police use of force policies are dictated by Supreme Court decisions.

“The use of force has to be reasonable,” Klinger said. “That is the constitutional standard.”

Klinger said, because use of force policies give officers instruction on fluid, chaotic situations, simple directions without a lot of detail is best.

“Sometimes, you can actually go against best practices when you overload officers with all sorts of information about things and they have to be thinking through all sorts of things, as opposed to giving them a very simple policy that says your force has to be proportional to the threat. And then you train them on that,” Klinger said. “A good friend of mine who used to be chief of police says. 'I want my policy to be so short that my officers can carry it around in their breast pocket in a little placard. A little 3 by 5 card.'”

Klinger said de-escalation tactics and policies that dictate when officers should report excessive use of force by their fellow officers are better placed in other sections of a department’s policies. He suggested that might be the case in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

But Bill Harmening, a special agent for the state of Illinois and a former police academy instructor, said a duty to stop or report excessive force should be included in the use of force policy because it is about use of force.

“On the legal side I don’t believe the Supreme Court or the lower courts have addressed that issue or mandated a duty to stop excessive force but that certainly can be done in police policy,” Harmening said. “I think it would be a good policy.”

Harmening, who is an adjunct professor at Washington University, added that the subjective nature of what constitutes excessive force and sufficient de-escalation could make it difficult to enforce or prove. However, he said, including those measures in police policy would allow departments to address infractions administratively.

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson was at the Conference of Mayors in Washington D.C. on Wednesday. A spokeswoman for the police department said he didn’t have time to talk when he returned on Thursday.

Campaign Zero used Freedom of Information Act requests to collect St. Louis Metropolitan Department’s use of force policy. The city's policy, as well as the policies for most of the 100 largest cities in the country, are posted in an online database compiled by Campaign Zero.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter  @cmpcamille.