In wake of Floyd killing, police in Orange County talk reform

All but two of Orange County’s 22 law enforcement agencies have banned or suspended the use of the sleeper hold.

Several local police departments are speeding up efforts to equip every officer with body-worn cameras that can document interactions with the public.

And every Orange County agency already meets several more demands from police reform advocates, including requiring officers to go through deescalation training, to carry non-lethal weapons and to report excessive force by other officers.

All are changes that have started, or been hastened, or highlighted by protests against police brutality that have erupted nationally since the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

But several other controversial police practices — such as no-knock warrants, shooting at moving vehicles and using tear gas for crowd control — are still permitted, even if rarely used by local departments.

These are some findings from a Register analysis of use of force tactics used by Orange County’s 21 city police departments and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which covers unincorporated county areas and 13 contract cities.

Local agencies have widely condemned Floyd’s killing, which was captured on nearly nine minutes of excruciating video.  And they say they’re trying to balance being responsive to public demands for change with maintaining what they describe as high standards to keep officers and the public safe.

“We are actively looking at our policy manual to determine if there is needed change or clarification of existing policies,” said Sgt. Karie Davies with the Irvine Police Department. The Irvine agency banned sleeper holds June 5 and got city council approval June 23 to outfit all officers with body cameras.

Local activists say they’re happy to see some policy changes underway. But they argue that continued, major reforms are needed to restore public trust and keep people of all backgrounds safe.

“There are certain police maneuvers and procedures that need to be addressed,” said Rev. Chineta Goodjoin with New Hope Presbyterian Church in Orange, who speaks out against police brutality.

“I know that the police, they face dangerous situations. I’m not going to suggest that they don’t. But in training for those dangerous situations, humanity cannot be left out of the equation.”

Some point out that law officers were in the same place in 2014 after the killing by police of Michael Brown Jr., in Ferguson, Missouri. Yet racial unrest continued.

“I’m hoping this isn’t just for show and appeasement,” said David Drakeford, a member of the NAACP in Orange County, “Or are we going to be back here in another two years or so?”

Needed tools or need to go?

Proposed legislation and reform movements, such as the “#8cantwait” campaign, are challenging law enforcement agencies to immediately change use of force policies that have been blamed for the death of Floyd and other recent high-profile killings of unarmed people of color.

Local departments are making changes to some highlighted policies. But other policies and practices, they argue, are tools that officers need to stay safe on the job.

The most common policy change that’s taken place since Floyd’s death is the ban or suspension of the use of carotid restraint, also known as a sleeper hold. This is where an officer restricts blood flow to a person’s brain by compressing carotid arteries on the side of the neck.

On June 5, Gov. Gavin Newsom decertified all carotid restraint training in California. In the days and weeks that followed, a majority of local law enforcement agencies banned the practice, or suspended it pending a review.

Sgt. Eric Bridges of Fullerton Police Department said officers in his agency used the carotid restraint six times in the past five years. The department banned the hold June 7.

The Tustin and Anaheim police departments both still allow carotid restraints by trained officers if they believe the move is needed to prevent serious injury or death. But some police reform activists say that by the time an officer uses a carotid hold, he or she is no longer in danger.

“You already have the person pretty much in a prone position and the officer is standing behind them. How is he in danger?” said Sarah Kahn, a member of Transforming Justice, Orange County.

Another controversial practice still allowed by most local agencies is the use of a no-knock warrant. In this situation, an officer isn’t required to give notice before forcefully entering a home or business to serve a warrant.

A no-knock warrant was used in March, when police in Kentucky shot and killed Breonna Taylor in her home. Police used a battering ram to bust into her apartment in the middle of the night looking for drugs in a case in which she was not a suspect.

A couple departments in Orange County said the practice is not allowed. Most said while the practice isn’t banned, it’s used rarely, if ever. And they note that no-knock warrants, like all search warrants, must be approved by a judge.

Also in flux are department rules about officers shooting at moving vehicles. No local law enforcement agency bans the practice outright, but they all discourage it unless there’s no other way to stop an immediate threat to officers or the public. The Orange Police Department, for example, hasn’t reported an incident of its officers shooting at a moving vehicle since 2009.

But Cypress Police Chief Rod Cox said in a statement that events like the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino show that shooting at a moving vehicle “may be necessary in extreme situations to protect public safety.”

Another practice that reformers want to end, but is being resisted by police, is the use of tear gas, a chemical weapon that’s banned in war but legal for U.S. law enforcement to use for crowd control or against barricaded people. Every agency in Orange County still allows the use of tear gas, but in most departments its use is limited to officers with special training, such as SWAT teams.

Most Orange County agencies said they don’t use rubber bullets for crowd control — another point of contention for police activists. However, local departments do use “baton rounds,” such as bean bags and sponge rounds. There were reports of such tactics being used during recent protests in Anaheim and Santa Ana.

While such rounds are considered less dangerous than rubber bullets, an investigation is underway after a Cleveland man was reportedly blinded by a bean bag round fired by officers during a May protest.

Boosting transparency

Another practice that reformers seek is the expanded use of police body cameras.

Advocates argue that when used properly body cameras can reduce both the use of force and complaints of police brutality by documenting potentially controversial police encounters with the public.

Orange County agencies are mixed when it comes to equipping officers with body cameras — 11 require officers to wear them, nine don’t. Two departments — Fountain Valley and Costa Mesa — are in the final stages of rolling them out. Others — including the Los Alamitos, Newport Beach, Orange, Placentia, Seal Beach and the Sheriff’s Department — are considering body cameras.

Capt. Maria O’Connell of the Los Alamitos Police Department said cost has been an obstacle, with the startup price to get equipment and video storage set up costing even smaller department tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Brea, Cypress and La Palma departments said audio recorders and dashboard cameras were already in use and body cameras weren’t on the table.

For activists, another key to police reform is the public being able to review each department’s playbook.

Since Jan. 1 of this year, California agencies have been required to “conspicuously post” their standards, practices and training manuals online, with most easily accessible through local agency websites.

Getting rid of ‘bad apples’

One of the former Minneapolis police officers facing prosecution in the Floyd case previously received at least 17 disciplinary complaints during his 19-year stint on the force.

That kind of record highlights why reform activists are hoping to make it easier for departments — or the public — to weed out officers with a pattern of excessive force.

Also in the Floyd case three officers stood nearby, without intervening, while one officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck. That image is part of what has prompted activists to call for officers to be required to intervene if they see a colleague using excessive force.

Such intervention is already required under California law, and every local agency said their officers are required to report any abuses of power.

All uses of force must be documented and reviewed by internal affairs experts — police overseeing other police. And use of force cases are entered into databases, which local departments say serve as an early warning system of sorts to identify officers who may require intervention, such as additional training or discipline.

Though most departments generally won’t hire someone with a felony or misdemeanor on their record, most local agencies don’t have policies that prevent them from hiring someone who’s been disciplined or even fired for excessive force. Still, local police officials said it’s unlikely that such a candidate would make it through the screening process.

“We have extremely high standards for hiring, and candidates must have positive employment history with positive recommendations from former employers,” said Officer Angela Bennet with the Huntington Beach Police Department.

But because police agencies increasingly are short-staffed, hiring standards can be difficult to maintain, said Geoffrey Sheldon, a Los Angeles attorney who represents police and sheriff’s departments across Southern California.

While some departments remain competitive, Sheldon said others are forced to take candidates with marks on their record. And while every department does background checks, Sheldon said some poor candidates “slip through the cracks.”

Examples of such “bad apples” have triggered a push for a statewide or even national registry of officers who’ve used excessive force.

Federal registry efforts have stalled due to gridlock between Democrats, who generally support the concept, and Republicans, who typically don’t. Sheldon said he thinks a state registry is more likely to happen in California because Democrats have a super majority in Sacramento.

For now, local departments said all use of forces cases are included in background information sent to any department inquiring about an officer. They’re also subject to public records requests, with some limitations, under a groundbreaking state law, SB 1421. The 2018 law, for the first time in 40 years, gave the public access to certain police disciplinary records — cases of dishonesty and sexual misconduct — as well as uses of force.

How changes happen

When it comes to changing police policies, shifts can be triggered in several ways.

Changes to state or federal law can translate into new procedures for local departments. That happened Jan. 1, when a California law kicked in that changed the conditions in which officers can use deadly force, raising the bar on the use of force from when an officer believes it is “reasonable” to only using it when “necessary.”

City councils or Boards of Supervisors can also demand changes to local police policies. But Sheldon said that doesn’t happen often, since elected officials often defer to law enforcement agencies.

None of the 13 cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Department, for example, have ever asked for any changes to department policies or procedures within their boundaries, according to department spokeswoman Carrie Braun.

While larger departments often craft their own policy manuals, Sheldon said most smaller departments buy policy guides from private firms such as Lexipol. That’s why matching language is found for various policies of Orange County’s 21 police departments.

For many of these departments to change their policies, Lexipol likely would need to change its recommendations.

Negotiations with powerful police unions also can stall changes, Sheldon noted.

In the meantime, individual officers and departments can also effect change through training, noted Darron Spencer, a former deputy who travels the country sharing his “Humane Policing” program.

Spencer said changing officers’ mindset, from warrior to public servant, with an eye to help everyone they encounter, can go a long way toward reducing conflict and restoring public faith.

Several local departments say, in the wake of the Floyd killing, they’re adding additional training sessions. The Brea Police Department, for example, is developing a course on how to de-escalate conflict, while all Westminster officers will attend their own such training this month.

While some reformers are encouraged by recent conversations, others doubt police intentions. Some wonder if change will be implemented after protests die down.

“I think police are just reacting to the protests, especially around the nation,” Kahn said. “Police departments don’t really have a big interest in changing.”

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