OPD chief points to reduction in police uses of force

Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent addresses the Public Safety Committee of the City Council Tuesday.

Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent addresses the Public Safety Committee of the City Council Tuesday. At right, member Dan Kalb, District 1.

At a meeting of the Oakland City Council’s public safety committee Tuesday night, Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent pointed to a “very significant” reduction in uses of force by police. He said new policies, training and body cameras all contributed to the reduction.

He was responding to an April 2015 request by the group 100 Black Men of the Bay Area for the city to report on how police are trained to avoid using force.

Despite Whent’s optimism, Councilmember Desley Brooks (District 6) said the OPD tends to have “best practices on paper, but in reality, there is a different story.”

Whent said that police divide uses of force in four levels. Level 1 is shootings. Level 2 is baton strikes, hand strikes, beanbag rounds and K-9 bites. Level 3 is the use of tasers and similar non-lethal technologies. And level 4 is tackling, various physical holds, and pointing a gun at a suspect.

In reviewing incidents in which police officers used force against someone, Whent said the department is trying to look at the situations in their context. Instead of only determining whether an act of force was justified, they want to see if it was avoidable.

He gave the example of an officer who stands in front of a suspect’s car and then shoots when the suspect drives forward. The shooting would be justified, he said, because the officer feared for his life, but it would also have been avoidable, because officers are trained not to stand in front of cars in situations like that.

Whent said crisis intervention training, or CIT, teaches officers to defuse potentially violent situations and to slow down volatile situations. “If we can slow things down,” Whent said, “we can prevent a use of force from occurring.”

For example, he said that when facing a person with a knife, standard police procedure is to repeatedly shout, “Drop the knife!” This strategy can escalate a tense situation, Whent said.

CIT trains officers to find means other than shows of force to interact with people in crisis, including some who may be mentally ill. Whent praised CIT and said the department is making it part of the academy training, so all incoming officers will learn it.

Still, crisis intervention training is slow to reach most of the Oakland police force. There are nine such classes a year, Whent said, and OPD gets 5 spots in each, meaning only 45 Oakland officers receive the training each year. So far, about 100 officers have received the training, Whent said.

Whent said that after initial “growing pains,” police body cameras have been an important factor in reducing police uses of force. All regular uniformed officers are issued a camera, he said, though about 150 more cameras are needed to equip every officer that may be pulled into service.

Body cameras have “a civilizing effect on both ends of the camera,” Whent said, with both police and citizens more likely to be on their best behavior knowing they are being recorded.

Brooks pressed Whent on the body cameras, pointing out that while Oakland pioneered the use of the cameras, they are too often not used — whether because they are out of battery or turned off.

It’s common for officers to forget to start recording, Whent said, in the heat of a pursuit or other stressful moment. He pointed to training and discipline as two ways to make sure body cameras record when they should. In the academy, Whent said, trainees are given dummy cameras so that they can get into the habit of turning them on at appropriate times. Disciplining officers for not using body cameras properly was fairly common between 2010 and 2012, he said, but now “it is very rare.”

The Oakland Police Department is recording 7 terabytes of data each month from body cameras, the chief said, adding that “we’ve captured many of the officer-involved shootings on video.”

Asked who can view body-camera footage, Whent said: “I would like to have consistent release of video of officer involved shootings.”

In other committee business, an OPD human resources representative reported on a recruitment and retention study. He said most police departments used the Post written test for hiring. By comparison, San Francisco uses Frontline National while Long Beach uses both Post and Frontline National, while Los Angeles uses an in-house test. He said in a survey of agencies around the country, Frontline National was the most popular written test.

A short report was given by a city attorney on a new California law that seeks to limit police profiling. Racial profiling is already forbidden, but this law would expand the ban to all protected classes of people, such as disabled people or people of different religions. Whent said the department’s policies and reporting practices are already in line with the law for the most part, but one area of confusion is over sexual orientation. Whent wondered how an officer pulling someone over would have any way to know that person’s orientation.

“We have no intention of asking people their sexual orientation when we stop them so we can check off the box on the form,” he said.

Finally, the committee approved the purchase of two ScanStation Forensic 3-D Laser Scanner Systems. These devices can make an accurate 360-degree picture of a crime scene. Today, OPD evidence technicians make diagrams of shooting scenes by hand, which “takes hours, if not days,” according to a City of Oakland report.

Partly due to this slow process, 600 shooting scenes a year are not processed, the report stated. On Tuesday, the committee voted to purchase two 3-D laser scanners, at about $160,000 each.

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