Oakland Police Commission votes to adopt new use of force policy
on October 11, 2020
At its Oct. 9 public meeting, the volunteer Oakland Police Commission, which oversees the Oakland Police Department (OPD), voted unanimously to adopt a new Use of Force Policy for the department.
The Oakland Police Department Use of Force Policy, or Departmental General Order K-03: Use of Force, is a broad set of rules and standards that outlines when and how Oakland police officers are allowed to use force, like firearms, batons and K-9s. It sets the standards for how officers are trained and can be used to hold officers accountable if a resident sues the department alleging excessive force.
OPD has a long history of violence and excessive force against community members. The department has been under federal oversight since the infamous 2003 ‘riders’ case, in which officers involved were charged with using brutal tactics, including beating falsely arrested people. In 2016, three Oakland police chiefs were fired or resigned in quick succession after it was revealed that multiple officers had sexually exploited a teenage girl.
Commissioner Tara Anderson, whose term ended after the Oct. 9 meeting, explained that one of the Commission’s primary responsibilities is to address “what has been seen as a use and abuse of force” in the department. She said the Commission hopes implementing this new use of force policy will deter police from abusing force in Oakland.
What’s in the new use of force policy?
Members of the Commission said a major achievement of the new policy is the inclusion of de-escalation techniques.
“Our policy shows that the police officers in Oakland have other options,” said Commissioner Henry Gage III. “They don’t always need to walk into a room and be the biggest, baddest wolf in the entire valley.”
The policy states that officers “shall” use de escalation tactics when they are “safe,” “feasible” and can be done “without compromising law enforcement priorities.”
Commissioner Gage explained that it preserves the discretion “that many officers do need in order to do their job safely.”
The policy establishes an officer’s “duty to intervene” if they see their colleagues using force that violates the department policy. It also prohibits using lethal force against a person who only presents a danger to themselves.
The new policy prohibits carotid restraints and choke holds, as required by a recently signed state law.
The Commission prohibited other types of positional asphyxia, like putting a knee on a person’s back to restrain them, in a separate policy. But the police department recently challenged that rule. The Oakland City Council is expected to revisit that issue at its Oct. 20 meeting.
Commissioner Ginale Harris said the new policy, “prioritizes peoples’ lives and pushes for de-escalation and dis-engagement instead of immediately turning to use of force.”
Commissioner Anderson described the policy as “one of the most progressive use of force policies in the country.”
The process of developing Oakland’s new policy began in earnest in January 2020 after a 2019 CA bill, AB 392, established new requirements for use of force policies across the state. Oakland police representatives made up half of the committee that developed the policy.
Just before the vote, advocates for police accountability urged the Commission to delay weighing in on the policy, arguing that it did not go far enough to restrict some uses of police force, including less-lethal weapons, K-9s and handcuffs. Many public commenters expressed concern that the police department had too much influence over the process.
“Police Commission, stand your ground for the benefit of Black people who are adversely affected by the police department’s current use of force policy,” said Cathy Leonard of the Coalition for Police Accountability. “Take the time to do it right.”
Advocates say the policy does not go far enough.
Allyssa Victory, criminal justice attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, says that while she supports some parts of the new policy, she doesn’t think the policy as a whole represents a real significant change in the way the department will use force.
“ACLU proposed removing many of the less-lethal weapons options, things like OC spray, [commonly known as pepper spray,] tear gas, and electrical conducting weapons, like tasers,” she said.
All of those less-lethal weapons continue to be available to Oakland police officers under the new policy.
“If the goal of our policy is to reduce violence and harm against our own residents, then we should be thinking about disarming officers,” Victory said.
Victory also pointed out that the new policy does not place restrictions on how force can be used against vulnerable populations, despite state law SB 230, which requires, as of Jan. 1, 2021, that all use of force policies include “guidelines regarding vulnerable populations, including, but not limited to, children, elderly persons, people who are pregnant, and people with physical, mental, and developmental disabilities.”
“Other potential methods of force, such as dogs, tasers, and military-style equipment should be included in the use of force policy,” said Terri McWilliams from the Coalition for Police Accountability (CPA) and Faith in Action East Bay.
Other activists from CPA also made the case that the department’s use of crowd control techniques and handcuffs should be included in the policy.
Commissioner Gage argued that although this new policy does not include these recommendations, it’s the first step towards regulating these topics in the future.
“What you have before you tonight is a better policy than the one that came before,” Commissioner Gage said at the meeting. “This is a new foundation. What we can do moving forward from tonight is to take this foundation and build upon it.”
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