Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson. (Jim Young/Reuters)

The Chicago Police Department, under intense criticism from the Justice Department and citizens’ groups for excessive use of force, announced Wednesday a sweeping change to its use-of-force policy, embracing the concepts of de-escalation during critical incidents and the sanctity of life.

The nation’s second-largest municipal police force was blasted in a Justice Department report this year as routinely violating the constitutional rights of residents, particularly black and Latino citizens. The situation was crystallized when video footage of the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald was made public in November 2015. It showed he was shot 16 times as he moved away from officers. Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired then-Police Superintendent Garry F. McCarthy, the Justice Department launched its investigation, and Emanuel installed then-Chief of Patrol Eddie T. Johnson as the new superintendent.

Johnson announced the new policies at a news conference Wednesday, saying it was devised after numerous community meetings, two first-ever public comment periods, and officer and police superviser focus groups. He said that every one of the Chicago department’s more than 12,000 officers would be required to undergo “rigorous” training, beginning with a computer orientation, then a four-hour in-person session by this fall, and then an eight-hour scenario-based course next year. The policy will become effective in the fall after every officer has finished the four-hour training session, Johnson said.

The new rules closely adhere to the controversial “30 Guiding Principles” unveiled by the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum in January 2016 and supported by nearly every big-city police chief but strongly opposed by the Fraternal Order of Police officers union and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, made up largely of the heads of smaller departments. The principles, authored by PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler, emphasize de-escalating confrontations when the subject does not have a gun and urging officers to give the subject space and time to allow the situation to cool down rather than seeking a quick resolution through force.

Chicago’s new policy calls for the use of deadly force “only as a last resort,” police said, and now defines striking a subject’s head with an impact weapon and chokeholds as deadly force. “Department members will seek to de-escalate situations,” police said, “and will not resort to force unless all other reasonable alternatives have been exhausted or would clearly be ineffective under the circumstances.” The policy also emphasizes accountability, requiring officers who witness violations of the policy to intervene and report the incident to a superviser. There are also new directions on the use of Tasers, chemical sprays and police dogs, and restrictions on shooting fleeing persons, such as not doing so unless the persons present an imminent threat to officers or others.

The changes come as Chicago continues to experience a high number of homicides and a slightly lowered number of shootings, and as a new presidential administration promises a return to law and order. Outside observers applauded the new policy.

Lori Lightfoot, chair of the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force, said in a statement, “This is an important step in the right direction for the department and our city.” She said Johnson and his commanders had created a policy “that promotes the core value of sanctity of life, and will result in better, more frequent training for officers so that they have the right tools to engage with the public to keep themselves and citizens safe.”

Wexler said, “Chicago’s made a huge jump here, and it really has some of the best practices in the country.” He said adopting such policies “are the most significant changes in the last 20 to 25 years of policing. In the end, officers’ lives and citizens’ lives will be saved. This is going to be a win-win for Chicago”

Hassan Aden of the Police Foundation, a former police chief in Greenville, N.C., said, “Any and all police organizations should be revising their use-of-force policies to ensure they have components that contain de-escalation techniques.” Aden added: “And not just the physical techniques, but the reasons why it’s a good idea, both for the safety of the community and the safety of the officer.”

The Washington Post database of fatal police shootings has counted 367 this year, almost exactly on pace with the 963 killed last year and the 991 killed in 2015. Chicago police have killed three people this year.

Further reading:

Chicago residents think kids growing up there are as likely to be violent-crime victims as college graduates

Chicago will make some changes to its police department as a ‘down payment’ on reform

Chicago releases ‘unprecedented’ evidence from nearly 100 investigations into police shootings, use of force

Chicago’s staggering rise in gun violence