Janet Cooksey, left, is embraced as she attends the funeral of her son Quintonio LeGrier in Chicago on Jan. 9, 2016. The fatal shootings of two black people in Chicago — college student LeGrier, 19, and Bettie Jones, 55, a grandmother of 10 — by police officers have increased tensions. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)

With tensions high over police shootings, an influential Washington police think tank recently proposed a new approach: retraining officers to avoid conflict whenever possible and stressing the “sanctity of life” of everyone involved, not just the officers’.

While many departments were quick to embrace “de-escalation” training, there also has been a sustained pushback by police unions, street officers and police chiefs who say the approach could cause dangerous hesi­ta­tion at times when officers need to be decisive.

“What a ridiculous piece of claptrap!” wrote the vice president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs in response to a suggestion that before using force, officers consider how the public might view their actions. The officers union in San Antonio is holding a vote of no confidence on the police chief there. And in an extraordinary partnership, the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police issued a joint statement denouncing the proposals from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), saying that “we must continue to place our trust in the law enforcement practitioners who protect our streets and neighborhoods,” not some D.C. think tank.

“PERF and Their Questionable Principles” was the headline of a critical analysis on Officer.com. “PERF’s Use of Force report illustrates disconnect between street cops, administrators,” read a headline on PoliceOne.com.

The backlash shocked a number of big-city police chiefs and PERF executive director Chuck Wexler, who authored the “30 Guiding Principles” for police use of force, subtitled “Taking Policing to a Higher Standard.” Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, formerly the chief in Arlington County, Va., fired off an email to the IACP saying he was “appalled by the stridency, hyperbole and vituperation dripping from your joint communication” with the FOP “at this time when our profession is under scrutiny on exactly this topic.”

Demonstrators protesting recent Chicago police shootings of local residents confront a police officer outside the home of Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Dec. 29, 2015. (Joshua Lott/For The Washington Post)

The clash at the top echelons of U.S. policing could determine whether law enforcement makes a nationwide change in how it uses lethal force on civilians, particularly in cases where a person does not have a gun. Police killed 990 people in the United States in 2015, according to a Washington Post database, of which 9 percent were unarmed, 16 percent wielded knives and 5 percent used their vehicles as weapons.

“I don’t think policing has faced this kind of fundamental challenge in over 20 years,” Wexler said. “This is, for better or worse, a nationwide conversation that police departments are having. And it is hitting people like a Rorschach test, all different ways. We’re talking about ways to prevent officers from getting into those split-second decisions, and people are reading into it what they want.”

‘Lawful but awful’

One of Wexler’s tenets is that when a subject does not have a gun, officers should look for other ways to resolve a tense situation, even if using a gun would be legally justifiable — “lawful but awful,” in Wexler’s words.

But many police officers worry about restricting their ability to take control of a dangerous situation to protect themselves and maybe others.

Terry Cunningham, president of the IACP and police chief in Wellesley, Mass., said the shift is not necessary. There’s been a “negative narrative about police, and it’s really not true,” he said. While there have been incidents of excessive force, officers make millions of arrests each year without problems.

“You see the ones that are horrific,” Cunningham added. “They are anomalies.”

In Pasco, Wash., officers fired 17 rounds that killed orchard worker Antonio Zambrano-Montes, who was armed only with rocks. At the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, there is an increased focus on shifting the mentality of police officers from warriors to guardians. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Sean Van Leeuwen, vice president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said, “Nobody would argue with the premise that reducing shootings by law enforcement is a worthy goal.” But, he said, “to impose a set of rules that don’t apply to the suspect places us at a disadvantage.”

Van Leeuwen cited the fatal shooting of Sgt. Jason Goodding in Oregon in February by a man who refused to show his hands, was shocked with a Taser, then pulled a concealed gun and fired. “Clearly the criminal suspects are not following PERF’s principles,” Van Leeuwen said.

The key word for police in use-of-force situations is “reasonableness”: Were an officer’s actions “objectively reasonable” as the situation appeared to him at that moment, according to the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Graham v. Connor . Police see that ruling as providing them with a clear legal definition of what is and is not justifiable.

Wexler proposed that police departments “adopt policies and training to hold themselves to a higher standard,” focusing particularly on whether an officer’s actions are proportional to the threat faced.

“There is no training in this country,” Wexler said, “dealing with edge weapons, or rocks or bottles. When someone pulls out a knife, you pull out a gun. There’s no training. It’s amazing, in 2016.”

Cunningham disagreed that there is no training, and although many officers are taught the “21-foot rule” on when to fire as a person gets closer, he said most officers do make smart decisions on placing distance between themselves and people armed with knives. He agreed with Wexler that some change in culture is good but said that dictating hard rules for officers in life-threatening situations is not workable.

Police policy has gradually changed in some areas over the years, other chiefs noted. Where high-speed chases were once normal, they are now rare because of the dangers they pose, said Michael Chitwood, police chief in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“I don’t understand what the uproar is,” Chitwood said. All officers in his department underwent de-escalation training to keep themselves and those with whom they interact from getting hurt, he said. Wexler’s proposal that a supervisor be summoned to every tense scene has been shown to reduce violence, Chitwood said, as have the proposals to increase crisis intervention training for dealing with the mentally ill, prohibiting the use of force on people who are a danger only to themselves, and administering immediate aid to someone who has been shot.

Source of proposals

PERF said that it had lifted most of the proposals from existing practices in departments around the country. The group noted that in 1972, New York City police officers shot 994 people. By gradually introducing new rules, such as not shooting at cars and formally reviewing all shootings, New York reduced the number of people shot by police to 79 in 2014.

“Any time we use force,” said Chief Steve Anderson of Nashville, “we take a chance of getting injured ourself.” But “nothing in [PERF’s proposals] says you have to take any chance of getting killed or injured,” he said. Anderson said the PERF proposals, which also call for officers to intervene when colleagues use excessive force and for regular reports to be issued to the public, could create a “seismic shift” in American policing.

Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, said that police chiefs in big cities (those with populations of more than 50,000) who make up PERF’s membership face more political pressure from liberal mayors and elected officials than small-department chiefs do. And they are more willing to bend to popular demand, he said.

“A police officer never, ever knows what he or she’s going to confront,” Pasco said, and that officer needs the flexibility to respond appropriately. “Over 80 percent of the police departments in the U.S. have 10 or fewer officers,” Pasco said. “You can’t always sit and wait for your supervisor.”