New guidelines meant to protect could hurt police, critics say

(KXAN File Photo)
(KXAN File Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Critics of new national guidelines designed to address police use of force say the recommendations could lead to confusion and even put officers at risk.

The voluntary guidelines are from an organization called the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). The group states that the recommendations were developed with the help of police.

PERF published its “30 Guiding Principles” at the end of January, as the national conversation continued about shootings and the relationship between police and communities. Days after the release of the standards, an Austin police officer shot and killed a nude teenager — David Joseph — who police say charged the officer.

“We need to look at changing the training that cops go through. We need to change policy and protocols when cops are put in these certain situations so things like this don’t happen,” said Chas Moore, founder of the Austin Justice Coalition.

Moore reviewed the PERF guidelines with KXAN Wednesday. He believes the ideas from PERF could help.

“This approach can increase officer safety, as well as the safety of community members, by teaching officers how to “slow down” some incidents and avoid escalating situations to the point where officers or members of the public are endangered,” the authors of the guiding principles wrote.

The guidelines include having police adopt stricter standards for determining when officers use their guns. The current legal standard is called “objective reasonableness,” and is backed by a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

“If another reasonably trained police officer in the same situation would have done that or similar, then that is considered to be the standard,” said Jerry Staton, a former Austin police officer and training director at Affordable Realistic Tactical Training.

The PERF guidelines explain that police use of force should meet a test of “proportionality.” The recommendations state that officers should ask themselves: “How would the general public view the action we took?”

“I think it would be a dangerous move and I think we’re going too far in trying to appease the general public’s perception on what a proper use of force is,” said Staton.

He points out that officers are sometimes faced with split-second decisions and can not properly assess a list of topics including possible public reaction. He believes the recommendations about stricter use of force standards and others could put officers at risk. Staton highlighted another PERF suggestion that police should never shoot at or from moving vehicles.

“To forbid it, you are handcuffing the police officer because there are people who will try to use their vehicles as a deadly weapon,” said Staton.

Still, he says other guidelines in the report are either already in place in police departments or are reasonable.

Dr. Brian L. Withrow, a professor at Texas State University who specializes in police systems and practices, also has concerns about the suggested policies. In an email to KXAN News, he explained that the proposals from PERF would create two standards: a legal standard and a separate standard in police department policy. He wrote that he believes the policy will, at best, cause confusion. At worst, he worries that confusion could get officers hurt.

While police departments mull possible changes, communities are also looking for ways to prevent or reduce deadly police shootings.

“[Police] have a higher obligation to go out of the way to make sure that [they] protect and serve and preserve the life of the people and the community that [they’re] protecting,” said Moore.

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