Tumwater police explain department’s use of force

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TUMWATER –– In response to local and national concern over police and use of force, the Tumwater Public Health & Safety Commission met with the local police department to discuss the ramifications of police use of force and its complexities.

“We believe in complete transparency,” stated Police Chief Jon Weiks. “We enjoy this process, sharing information and ideas. This is what we’re here for.”

Understanding the basics of police use of force begins with understanding the case law surrounding the issue.

“Folk don’t really understand the case law behind what we do and why we do things,” noted Lieutenant Carlos Quiles. “Folks think that what we see on movies and TV shows is something that is realistic and something we can do, and we all know that’s not the case.”

The landmark Supreme Court case, Graham v. Connor (1989), is used to determine reasonable use of force, city officials said. The use of force is also analyzed under scrutiny of the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which encompasses unreasonable search and seizure and probable cause.

However, “There is no legal definition in the State of Washington for what reasonable is,” continued Quiles.

When a case of the use of force is under investigation or review, it is judged from the perspective of the officer on scene, taking factors into account like the severity of the crime committed by the suspect and whether the suspect is evading or resisting arrest, police officers said during the Tuesday meeting.  An incident is not looked back on with “20/20 hindsight,” since it is often impossible for the officer on scene to know all of the details that arise later, or that appear to be present on screen through a body cam video.

Despite the lack of a statewide legal definition, the federal laws surrounding use of force, Washington State law, and the Tumwater Police policy outlining the use of force “mirror each other,” according to Weiks. “They’re all in line with each other.”

A critical question that arises regarding the use of force is how officers are trained to handle situations where force may or may not be necessary to come to a resolution. Quiles gave an overview of some of the training methods they use within the Tumwater PD. One, which is considered innovative, is implementing specific scenario-based training wherein officers go into a training scene not knowing ahead of time whether it will be a situation where force is needed. They must decide on the spot whether to use force, and the goal is to refrain from doing so if possible.

“They’re not easy scenarios,” explained Lt. Quiles. “We purposely put officers in scenarios where the outcomes are resolved without force [and they can use the] proper de-escalation tactics. [We have had] great value and results from that.”

Besides this, the reporting system Tumwater uses compels officers to report very specifically, and in many cases, much more thoroughly than other police departments.

“What we really ask them to do is if officers use force, we require that they provide the justification for their use of force and their perspective in their police reports,” said Lt. Quiles. ”Justify it to us in writing … articulating why what they did was correct.”

It is important for whoever reads the police report to know what an officer did, how they did and, and why. Of course, officer safety is a concern for those out in the field.

“If someone has a gun,” for example, “we don’t start a situation with verbal commands, because the stakes are too high.”

If a certain amount of force is being used by a suspect against an officer, following the principles of physics it requires one step above that amount of force to overcome the resistance the suspect has applied. This can lead to the quick escalations that we sometimes see in police videos.

“Resisting arrest can come at many different levels,” explained Lt. Quiles. He used an example to illustrate this intricacy. There have been situations when a suspect is placed under arrest, and during the handcuffing process, the officer felt the suspect’s arm tense up in a way that would indicate resistance and a possible escalation. In feeling this, the officer may perform a take-down maneuver, which to onlookers, appears to have been more force than reasonable and it “looks like they did absolutely nothing.”

According to Commander Jay Mason, the Tumwater Police Department is one of 61 Washington departments to subscribe to a service by Police Strategies LLC called the Police Force Analysis System.

Police Strategies LLC is a third-party organization which analyzes and processes thousands of data points for all the accumulated arrests that took place in a given year. They separate the data into categories such as the reason for the original call (for example, a welfare check) and the amount of force that was used by the officer, “mining 150 plus data points for each incident.”

Mason noted that in 2019, Police Strategies processed 45 incidents where officers used force, out of the 30,000 plus times they responded to various calls throughout the year. He noted that Tumwater uses an overall lower level of force on average than many police departments.

This showed in the data he presented that was compiled by Police Strategies. It is important to remember that data such as this can be especially nuanced by factors like the individual circumstances of situations, how many officers are on scene, and even how different departments structure their report-writing guidelines.

For example, according to Mason, one statistic shows that Tumwater appears to have one of the highest average number of uses of force per officer. However, this is because the department tends to have multiple officers on scene, and they back each other up well. Thus, force used on scene by two officers is counted as more than by one officer, despite the lesser actual amount of force used.

Another consideration to take into account is the review process Tumwater uses to investigate instances of the use of force. There is a graded system wherein the level of force used corresponds to a specific stage or assigned number. For example, according to Mason, “Level 2” force is akin to some kind of strike, kick, or baton hit.

“Last year we had less than 10 Level 2 applications,” he recalled. “Force is not pretty, and it is really challenging. Just because something looks good on a screen or a body cam doesn’t mean that it was just or reasonable [and vice versa].”

In addition, any instance of a Level 2 application of force is placed under review.

“We do an internal review of every use of force within the agency. If it’s Level 2 it goes to the board,” he said. He performs a review, and that packet goes to the chief. “Every case of use of force is reviewed individually.”

This speaks to the internal accountability Tumwater officers place themselves under.

“The officers working today are the best we’ve ever had, they’re the best trained, [and] they understand folks’ expectations,” assured Quiles.

It can be difficult and likely futile to attempt to compare the work of different police departments in determining whether the actions of one were justified. This is because every department sets its own standards to a degree despite the national principles set by guidelines like Graham v. Connor (1989).

“Police work in Tumwater is not policework in Seattle,” explained Mason. “What is expected out of a police officer in those communities is vastly different.”

Of course, it seems that Tumwater officers prefer to de-escalate scenarios rather than to use force, whenever possible.

“The ultimate goal for all of us is just to not use force, period,” stated Police Chief Weiks.

For more information on the Tumwater Police Department’s protocols regarding the use of force, visit ci.tumwater.wa.us for records of previous meetings held by the city council regarding the department.

 

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