The Honolulu Police Department has a new policy on use of force that promotes deescalation and incorporates several other changes demanded by police reform activists in the last year.
HPD Chief Susan Ballard convened a committee last June to review the policy after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, sparking protests against police brutality across the nation and the world.
The city’s updated policy brings it closer in line with national best practices, said Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist at the University of Hawaii who has examined cases of lethal force in Honolulu.
“If these policies are followed, we will not see as many lethal encounters between police officers and citizens,” she said.
“When reasonable and safe under the totality of the circumstances, officers shall attempt to de-escalate and stabilize with time and space so that more options and resources might be made available,” the new policy states. “Officers shall be attentive and responsive to opportunities and options for avoiding or reducing the need for force without compromising their responsibilities.”
HPD did not respond to an interview request.
The adjustment regarding shooting at moving vehicles is one of the most significant changes, according to Chesney-Lind.
In the past, officers were allowed to shoot at cars if the driver appeared to threaten officers or others with the car itself. Officers were discouraged from placing themselves in the path of a suspect’s vehicle, but if they did and felt threatened, deadly force could be used, Chesney-Lind said.
Police alleged that’s what happened in the death of 26-year-old Kyle Thomas, a Waianae man who officers shot and killed in 2019. Police said Thomas tried to ram his car into their unmarked vehicles, causing the officers to fear for their lives and prompting them to shoot. In a lawsuit, Thomas’s family says that’s not how it happened and that the shooting was not justified.
Under the new policy, officers may not discharge their weapons unless the person in the vehicle either threatens someone with deadly force by means other than the vehicle itself or other specific circumstances warrant the use of deadly force.
Dee Ann Koanui, a retired HPD officer, said that change makes sense.
“Officers should not shoot at oncoming cars unless there is no escape for them,” she said.
Coincidentally, the policy was implemented just days before officers shot the driver of a vehicle on Monday. Officers killed a 16-year-old who was allegedly driving a stolen vehicle police were pursuing. The matter is under investigation, and it’s not yet known whether the officers violated the new rules against shooting at vehicles. Two other teenagers were injured in the incident.
The change in the use of dogs is also encouraging, Chesney-Lind said. The Marshall Project found police dogs injure, maim and even kill people across the country every year.
“You don’t want to just have dogs attacking people, especially for property offenses,” Chesney-Lind said.
Vascular neck restraints – which were already rarely used, according to HPD – will now only be reserved for the most dire situations when an officer’s life is in danger. It makes permanent a restriction that was temporarily implemented after the death of Floyd, who died with a police officer’s knee on his neck after being accused of a non-violent offense.
“Certainly trying to pass what was purported to be a counterfeit $20 bill isn’t a situation where you’d need to use that kind of lethal force,” Chesney-Lind said.
Koanui feels taking away that restraint, known as a VNR, is a “huge mistake.” She recalls using it herself to get larger, male suspects under control in volatile situations on the job. Without it, she or her partner could’ve been injured, she said.
“It’s a technique and if you do it correctly, it would really help,” she said.
Overall, Koanui said she feels HPD’s existing training already instills the spirit of deescalation, even if it wasn’t in writing previously.
“Their entire training is: Be reasonable. Be safe. Deescalate when you can. Make distance, take cover. These are all things that are a given,” she said.
“We have bad officers who don’t follow the rules and are always bending the rules. Maybe they need it spelled out even more clearly. But for the normal, obedient officer, they don’t need 1,001 policies telling them: Do your job correctly. We know. And we do.”
The changes are the result of recommendations from a committee, made up of HPD officials and Police Commissioner Richard Parry, along with input from the police union.
“We felt that the previous policy wasn’t forthright enough in saying that you must try to deescalate and put the onus on the officers to deescalate issues,” Parry said.
Parry said the group’s main focuses were deescalation, the neck restraint and the duty to intervene. The union pushed back a bit about eliminating the neck restraint from “intermediate” use, Parry said, but ultimately relented.
Union President Malcolm Lutu did not respond to a request for comment.
Deaths at the hands of Honolulu police have been rising in recent years. Before 2017, the total was between one and three per year. Honolulu police killed eight people in 2019 and six people in 2018.
Chesney-Lind said HPD’s policy decisions are a step toward turning that around.
“I think this is a good response, a responsible response, to problems that had developed over the decades based on the old policies,” she said. “I’m gratified to see the changes.”
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