APD should follow national best practices on use of force and make guidelines clearer, watchdog says
The Austin Police Department's policies governing when an officer can and can't use force don't align with Austinites' expectations, according to a new report from the city's independent police monitor.
The Office of Police Oversight collected feedback from 1,400 Austinites on APD's use-of-force policies and examined how these polices stack up against national standards. Its report will help inform how the department rewrites its guidelines to reduce police violence, which was mandated by Austin City Council last year.
The OPO found the department's policies don't explicitly ban officers from using chokeholds or require them to use de-escalation tactics or intervene in cases of excessive force. That lack of specificity is out of step with national best practices for policing, the office said.
"Far too many of APD's policies are unclear and unaligned with national best practices in policing," OPO Director Farah Muscadin said in a press release announcing the study results. "Our goal was to provide an opportunity for community members to share their concerns about APD's use of force policies and better align policies with community expectations and best practices."
OPO compared the department's policies to those suggested by the Police Executive Research Forum and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The analysis was spurred by the 8 Can't Wait project, which formed in the wake of George Floyd's murder last year to highlight potentially problematic police tactics. Following police protests, Austin City Council called for a reexamination of APD's policies. The OPO's report examined six use-of-force policies:
- requirements to de-escalate
- requirements to use all options before deadly force
- use of chokeholds
- requirements to warn before shooting
- requirements to intervene in cases of excessive force
- restrictions on shooting at moving vehicles
OPO's policy analysis found APD policies should better communicate an officer's options as it relates to de-escalating situations. OPO said APD should institute a five-step process to allow officers to assess whether someone could be a threat and emphasize tactics to reduce violent outcomes.
More than 60% of Austinites surveyed by the police monitor said the department should acknowledge or address that fear, disabilities or mental health issues may impact a person's ability to comply with an officer's orders.
Using other alternatives before deadly force
The police monitor said APD should list alternatives to deadly force within its policies and require an officer to attempt those techniques before using deadly force. The department's de-escalation protocols provide alternatives to deadly force, but don't mandate that officers follow them.
Fifty-two percent of people who responded to OPO's survey said police should use all alternatives before using deadly force. Those who opposed that recommendation said it could limit an officer's discretion.
Use of chokeholds
Austin police guidelines don't ban chokeholds or neck restraints outright, though then-Chief Brian Manley said last year the tactics aren't taught to APD cadets. OPO suggests the department define neck restraints and chokeholds within its general orders and ban them outright, along with any maneuver that could limit blood or oxygen flow.
Fifty-three percent of those surveyed said they should be banned outright. In another question, 51% of respondents said the department's current policy "does not make them feel safe," OPO said.
Warning before shooting
The OPO found APD's current guidelines to require an officer to warn someone before shooting them are "ambiguous." The office suggested APD's guidance for so-called less lethal uses of force were more detailed than its lethal-force policy. The police monitor said officers should be required to give a warning in most cases and get specific directions on how to warn people.
Half of the Austinites surveyed said the department's current policy makes them feel safe, while 47% said the opposite. In a separate question, 55% of those surveyed said APD should require officers to warn before shooting and give them guidance on how to warn people.
Requiring intervention in the event of excessive force
Officers are currently empowered to physically intervene if they witness another officer use improper or excessive force. OPO suggests APD include verbal intervention in its policies. The monitor also suggests including language that emphasizes that other officers shouldn't retaliate against someone who intervenes, regardless of seniority.
Four out of 5 Austinites surveyed said they believe officers have a duty to intervene and report any use of excessive force they witness. Two-thirds said the department should explicitly list the ways an officer can intervene.
Shooting at moving vehicles
The OPO analysis suggested the department could pare down the instances in which an officer can fire at a moving vehicle, calling for a near-ban on the practice unless there's a mortal threat to an officer or others. The proposed guidelines also ban shooting from a moving vehicle, which APD's general orders currently don't address.
People surveyed were split on this: 47% said officers should be banned from shooting from a vehicle and 47% said officers should be allowed to shoot from moving vehicles.
The recommendations now go to APD, which will work with the city manager to institute changes to the policies.