Legislation set to be introduced to Congress on Thursday would create a new national standard for when police officers can use deadly force and require police academies to teach officers de-escalation techniques — the latest in a series of measures to be proposed during the current national conversation on police reform.
The bill, called the Preventing Tragedies Between Police and Communities Act of 2016, is authored by Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), who has been among the most outspoken members of Congress in calling for federal action to curb the number of police killings.
“We want our officers using force really that [is] proportional to the situation,” Moore said in an interview on Wednesday. “This is about giving police officers additional training assets with regard to encounters that don’t necessarily have to end up with a use of deadly force.”
The legislation is the latest in a flurry of measures introduced in the 21 months since the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which prompted protests and riots and sparked a national examination of police use of force.
In late 2014 Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act, which requires law enforcement agencies that receive federal money to report details of police-involved deaths to the Department of Justice. Other congressional proposals have included bills to require special prosecutors to oversee investigations into police killings, require all police departments to receive body cameras, eliminate or curb the 1033 program that provides local police departments with military gear, and various efforts to force departments to collect and report more data about their use of force and community relations.
This legislation, like the others aimed at police reform, faces considerable obstacles in the GOP-controlled Congress, especially since this is a presidential election year. Many lawmakers are hesitant to support any measure that could be construed as “anti-police.”
“I do expect some push-back from some law enforcement officials,” Moore said, adding that she hopes that perhaps her legislation could be attached to ongoing criminal justice reform efforts being considered by lawmakers. “The only thing that’s moving in this place are criminal justice issues, and I’m hoping to get this in the queue.”
Moore’s proposal targets police training and would require U.S. police officers to be trained in non-lethal force, to go through crisis intervention training to help them deal with the mentally ill, and to use the lowest level of force possible when responding to a threat. If passed, local police departments would have one year to comply with the new training standards or would face reductions in federal grant money.
“Nobody wants to see a police officer second guess a situation where they themselves will be murdered or maimed,” Moore said. “But I feel there is a huge chasm between officers who claim that they fear for their life and the actual facts of life and how they could have de-escalated these situations.”
Those standards are drawn from a recent report by the Police Executive Research Forum, an influential Washington-based policing-policy think tank that has been among the leading advocates for policing reform since the unrest in Ferguson and in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Earlier this year, PERF convened a gathering of policing officials at which it proposed adopting new training standards nationwide, and later issued a report with those recommendations.
“Improvements in training, which are the focus of this bill, are a key element of what we are working on,” said Chuck Wexler, PERF’s executive director.
“The challenge is, you have 18,000 police departments … and there is difficulty with implementing change,” Wexler said. “We don’t have best practices, we don’t have best training systems, we don’t have the kind of standards across the board that allow departments to know what works best. This bill … is at the heart of what we’ve been suggesting: that police training has to change.”
But PERF’s report has been controversial in policing circles, with some police trainers and chiefs arguing that it amounts to “political correctness” and that the proposed reforms could cause officers to second guess themselves in the face of deadly threats. In a joint statement issued earlier this year, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Fraternal Order of Police denounced the proposals.
“We cannot reasonably expect law enforcement officers to walk away from potentially dangerous situations and individuals in the hope that those situations resolve themselves without further harm being done,” the groups wrote. “Both of our organizations reject any call to require law enforcement agencies to unilaterally, and haphazardly, establish use-of-force guidelines that exceed the ‘objectively reasonable’ standard set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly 30 years ago.”
Moore’s legislation notes ongoing efforts by The Washington Post to track national data on the number of policing shootings each year as well as a similar effort by the Guardian newspaper. The Post’s reporting has revealed that many such shootings are of armed suspects, a large portion include suspects in the midst of a mental or emotional health crisis, and that black men are shot and killed by police at a rate disproportionate to their percentage of the U.S. population.
The Post “found 990 people in our country who were killed by fatal police shootings last year,” Moore said, referring to the newspaper’s database on fatal police shootings. “This is not rare, and to the extent that it’s not rare, it occurs to me that this is systemic.”
“Were these killings some sort of isolated incident, something that happened once in a lifetime, it would be different,” Moore said. “We see it happen over and over. Not just Ferguson, but Eric Garner, or even in my hometown with the death of Dontre Hamilton. It just really struck me as being too close to home.”
Hamilton was a 31-year-old homeless man who was shot 14 times and killed in April 2014 in a park in downtown Milwaukee by Officer Christopher Manney. According to a report released by Milwaukee’s district attorney, Hamilton was sleeping near a Starbucks kiosk when Manney woke him up and attempted to pat him down.
Manney said Hamilton grabbed his baton and turned it on him, prompting him to open fire. Local and federal investigators declined to bring charges in the shooting, which prompted protests locally. The department fired Manney, saying that he did not follow department policies during the interaction.
“This man literally was lying on the ground sleeping, you talk about being as innocent as you could possibly be,” Moore said, adding that she met with Hamilton’s mother for dinner on Sunday. “His fate is shared by too many people in this country.”