Police Use of Force
For the past several months, the country has been having a loud debate on police use of force. It has been in the streets, in our politics and news and online and it has been inescapable. This is a difficult discussion, even when people are being rational in their debate, because of deep-seated beliefs held on both sides. I have had the opportunity to sit on the Professional Standards Review Board or PSRB, a civilian oversight committee of the West Valley City Police Department, for the past four years. Our role is to independently review all use of force by the police department, usually after a thorough investigation by the department or internal affairs, and to judge whether the force used was "in policy" or "out of policy" from the eyes and viewpoint of a civilian.
PSRB is intended to review all "use" and "show of" force employed by officers in our department. Some examples are:
-physical force (punching, kicking, wrestling, tackling, etc)
-usage of tools (taser, asp or baton, pepper spray, etc)
-firearm or taser displays (un-holstering and showing it while giving commands)
-All complaints about a police officer whether from citizens or from Internal Affairs (an officer was rude, an office used excessive force, an officer violated a person's rights or did something illegal, etc.)
Since being a part of PSRB, I have reviewed thousands of use of force situations from our officers. West Valley City PD has well over 100,000 interactions with citizens in our city each year, and we review approximately 50-75 cases per month that include some sort of force. Reviewing a case like this is never as easy as watching a portion the video and making a judgement. If it was only that easy! We read the police reports from all of the involved officers, we review the justification for the force provided by the officer and why they felt it was appropriate and legal, we review the internal investigation provided by the Sergeant and Lieutenant who each review and judge the incident separately. If the case is sent to Internal Affairs, we also review their investigation in full, including audio/video logs of interviews and other evidence. We also watch body cam footage. Once we have a full picture of the event, we make our own determination of the actions taken were in line with police policy and law. We can even make disciplinary recommendations up to and including termination.
"But even good cops make mistakes, and because of the level of authority and power we afford them, they must have strict rules of conduct and accountability. "
Part of being a member of PSRB is to understand what police policy entails and why it exists in its current form. This means we attend police training for firearms, high speed pursuits, physical fighting techniques, use of tools like pepper spray, tear gas and the asp (baton). We are trained by city attorneys about constitutional law and precedent. We sometimes attend the daily lineup meetings where officers receive training every day before their shift begins on laws, threats and constitutional issues like proper search procedures. When an officer is killed anywhere in the country, our officers usually get training on how to protect themselves from a similar situation, and we sometimes are a part of that training. We go through scenario training on when to use deadly force. We also go on ride-alongs to experience the job first hand.
The reality I have found is this: it is extremely difficult for an average citizen to understand why police policies exist (truly) unless you have been in their shoes, or live with the reality of their careers day in and day out (like a spouse or close family member). I have found police reports or body cam footage disturbing at times, yet found them in policy all the same. I have also seen officers terminated and/or prosecuted. I can only speak for West Valley City Police Department directly, but NO ONE hates a bad cop more than a good cop, and West Valley City PD is filled to the brim with good cops. West Valley City also has a duty to intercede in our law which requires officers to step in if they witness another officer abusing his or her authority. I am very proud of our police and the amazing work they do every day to keep our community safe.
But even good cops make mistakes, and because of the level of authority and power we afford them, they must have strict rules of conduct and accountability. I am also proud of the work we do on PSRB, and over the years we have made a number of policy recommendations to the city to improve how our officers interact with the public while keeping officers safe and capable of making decisions in the moment. I believe our police department is and should continue to be a highly trained and capable department, with adequate funding to fulfill their role of protecting and serving our communities.
To improve safety in our neighborhoods in West Valley City, it will take a multi-pronged approach to law and order. First, we must have adequately trained police with enough patrol officers to effectively manage our city. Currently, we have as few as 12 patrol officers in the entire city at any given time. This is why response times for non-emergency calls can sometimes take many, many hours. This is the responsibility of the West Valley City Council and Mayor to approve a larger headcount for patrol officers (something requested by both the current chief and previous chiefs for many years). We can all get involved by attending the City Council meetings and in the public comment period you can speak up and ask the city to increase funding for patrol officers.
Second, we must have accountability for the criminals and repeat offenders that cause the majority of the crime in our communities. Drug crimes, vandalism, trespassing, and even some assaults are being released by the jail before the officer finishes writing the paperwork. This is not an exaggeration either, I have seen it happen many times. Some officers do not bother ticketing or arresting certain offenses simply because the offender will never pay the fine or do any time, and district attorneys wont prosecute and jails wont hold people. The officers wastes hours of their (stretched thin already) time writing reports and going through procedure for no purpose and instead add to the wait time of the next crime victim. This will take some legislation at the State level, which I hope to address when in office.
Like all people and professions, bad cops do exist. But in West Valley City we have a department and officers committed to removing them and PSRB to ensure that our citizens have transparency, and are a part of that process.