How one of the nation's roughest cities is reshaping use-of-force tactics
By DEANNA PAUL | The Washington Post | Published: August 21, 2019
It was just after 8 p.m., when a knife-wielding man staggered out of a fast-food shop and zigzagged down Broadway in downtown Camden, New Jersey. More than a dozen officers — rookies with three months on the job and veterans with 13 years — formed a ring around him. When he stumbled back, slashing the carving knife unpredictably and ignoring orders to drop the weapon, the police kept their firearms holstered.
In less than 10 minutes, the man had let go of the knife and officers handcuffed him.
Similar scenarios have resulted in fatal shootings, often of unarmed people, but using time, distance and communication, the Camden Police Department de-escalated the potentially deadly situation.
"If we approached that night with the old-guard mentality, we would have had an officer-involved fatal shooting," Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson said of the November 2015 night.
On Wednesday, the department released its new policy, codifying what has been department practice for years. Experts are calling the document — drafted with members of New York University Law School's Policing Project and vetted by both the New Jersey ACLU and the Fraternal Order of Police — the "most progressive" use-of-force policy to date.
Since 2015, under Thomson's stewardship, the Camden Police Department has adopted use-of-force training and procedures that promote de-escalation and make clear that force is a last resort.
An armed man in mental health crisis, who moments earlier had threatened restaurant customers, would justify an officer's use of deadly force, Thomson told The Washington Post on Tuesday. It would have fallen in the "lawful but awful" category - a preventable encounter that would have nonetheless met the legal requirements to be classified a noncriminal shooting.
"We would have walked with him for another mile," Thomson said. "If there's something else [police] can do to avoid taking that person's life, there should be an obligation on us to exercise those options."
The 18-page directive, which boils down to six core principles, limits use of force to a narrow list of situations. Even then, the document says that the "use of force should never be considered routine" - never to be used unless it's necessary and even then, it must be proportional to the circumstances. Once the situation is under control, officers must "promptly provide or request medical aid."
The policy also places an affirmative duty on department employees to stop other officers from using improper force; members will be disciplined for their own violations or failing to report a fellow officer's.
"Much like a doctor's Hippocratic oath, police must first do no harm," Thomson told The Washington Post.
The expectation of de-escalation is not just from the chief, he said, but from each other. When there's a deadly encounter, it's deadly on both sides. The more officers can slow things down, the more they can reduce the need for force.
Policing has changed drastically in Camden over the past decade. Ten years ago, the city was one of America's most dangerous, the police department was in the throes of a corruption scandal and community members mistrusted law enforcement.
"To be frank, we gave them many good reasons to feel that way," Thomson said.
Since disbanding and rebuilding the police force in 2013, he said, the department has established legitimacy with a style of policing rooted in respect, dignity and accountability.
"We make far fewer mistakes or egregious acts, but are still far from perfect," he said. "When we do stumble, people know we will not tolerate inappropriate or illegal police behavior and will hold ourselves accountable."
Last September, Thomson reached out to ACLU senior supervising attorney Alexander Shalom and asked if he'd be willing to review a draft of the policy.
"There were parts of it that really knocked my socks off. It wasn't high-in-the-sky with everyone singing 'Kumbaya,'" Shalom told The Post. Of note, he said, were how "accessible," and "common-sensical" it was.
The chief also consulted Camden's Fraternal Order of Police leadership. Though it's rare to have a policy vetted by the local ACLU and police union, both supported the policy.
(Unlike New York City's police union — which on Monday attacked the police department's decision to fire the officer who used a prohibited chokehold on Eric Garner, and suggested officers would have to shy away from confrontations and make the city less safe — Thomson said the Fraternal Order of Police recognized that front-end accountability created a safer environment for both the officers and the public.)
The Supreme Court has said that use of force must be "objectively reasonable" from the officer's perspective at the time it was used, said Barry Friedman, director of the Policing Project at the NYU law school.
Rather than asking whether the force was reasonable, the question should be whether it was necessary and proportional. "The law should be the floor, not the ceiling," he said.
Thomson is changing the thought process, Ron Davis, a 30-year police veteran and former police chief, told The Post Monday.
"Taking cover is not the same as hiding, backing away is not retreating or surrendering," said Davis who also served in President Barack Obama's Justice Department as director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. And even if precedent permits "lawful but awful," "just because you can use force doesn't mean you have to."