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Experts, Activists Say San Diego’s New Police De-escalation Policy May Not Change Much

San Diego police officers stand guard on Broadway near State Street in front ...

Photo by KPBS Staff

Above: San Diego police officers stand guard on Broadway near State Street in front of City Hall amid protests, May 31, 2020.

Use-of-force experts said there is nothing groundbreaking in the San Diego Police Department's new de-escalation procedure and community activists said there is more work to be done.

The new policy, announced at a news conference on Wednesday, creates for the first time the requirement that police officers use de-escalation tactics, but only "when safe and reasonable to do so, based on the totality of circumstances."

The policy outlines some of those tactics, including creating a buffer zone between an officer and a subject and attempting "to establish trust, in order to gain compliance with subjects and cooperatively de-escalate situational conflict."

Police officials also issued another new policy Wednesday that requires officers to step in if they see another officer using an unreasonable amount of force.

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"I don't see anything revolutionary or radical in either policy," said Kevin Davis, a use-of-force expert and trainer who has worked in law enforcement for 38 years. "They are average policies, they fit in industry standards in terms of use of force, de-escalation, and the duty of an officer to intervene."

Davis said it's favorable to police officers to include the caveat that de-escalation be used "when safe and reasonable to do so," because, he said, de-escalation is subject-driven.

"An officer attempts to elicit control, but it's up to the suspect," he said.

But Darwin Fishman, a professor at San Diego State University who also works with the Racial Justice Coalition, which has been advocating for more police reform, said those disclaimers diminish the policy to the point of making it meaningless.

"It's toothless," he said. "What are the consequences if they don't de-escalate, or don't intervene if they use excessive force?"

He said the policy follows the old model of policing, meaning officers "give commands and if you don't follow, they escalate and use violence."

"There should be an emphasis on, if you are in a calm situation, police should not be escalating by yelling commands," he said. During his time on the Community Review Board on Police Practices, Fishman said he saw many incidents that "started as peaceful situations, but the police instigated and it escalated."

"There's nothing there," said Khalid Alexander, the founder of the criminal justice reform organization Pillars of the Community. "It's a pool party of qualifiers and instances that allow them to use the force policies they already have in place. There's nothing new in it, nothing to hold police officers accountable."

Alexander does support reform measures at the county level, including creating a mental health crisis unit that could respond to mental health calls in place of Sheriff's deputies, but said those are also not revolutionary.

He said his organization will continue to push for more reform, and ideally would like to disband the police department and start from the beginning, hiring new officers and creating new policies.

"They refuse to admit racial profiling exists," he said. "Any time community members complain, or express mistrust in the police department, they dismiss those concerns."

RELATED: Records Show Racial Disparities When San Diego Law Enforcement Uses Force

Davis, the use-of-force expert, said policies like these need to allow room for officers to make split-second decisions.

"On Monday morning, from the safety of an office when you're watching a body-worn camera, everything is crystal clear," he said. "Officers aren't afforded those kinds of things."

San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said the de-escalation policy, combined with the requirement that officers must intervene against officers using excessive force make it "the most robust in the nation."

"We really changed the duty to intervene policy from a 'should' to a 'shall,'" he said. "It's an absolute, it’s a mandate that if an officer sees an officer use unreasonable force that the officer must intervene. That could be from verbal, to actual touching, to restraining."

The new policies also have the support of the police union.

"By providing greater clarity regarding our de-escalation policies, our department can continue strengthening community trust and confidence that our officers do all they can to ensure use-of-force is an absolute last resort," said Jack Schaeffer, the president of the San Diego Police Officers Association.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Andy Trimlett

Protesters march in Hillcrest on the ninth-straight day of protests against racial injustice and police brutality throughout San Diego.

The changes came after weeks of community protests locally and around the world against police violence. They join other attempts at police reform, including banning of choke holds on suspects by all San Diego area law enforcement agencies, and moving toward the creation of a county mental health crisis unit that would respond to mental health calls instead of armed Sheriff's deputies.

RELATED: How A California Police Department Changed Its Mindset On Use Of Force

Other departments, including Berkeley and Baltimore, already have similar policies requiring police to attempt de-escalation first. Four years ago, Berkeley started a comprehensive training program with all its officers to bring de-escalation techniques into all aspects of policing, including the buffer zone tactic that San Diego will now use.

Berkeley is also now adding requirements that officers step in to stop excessive force.

Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.

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Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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