L.E. Agencies Putting Use-of-Force Policies Online

Dec. 11, 2012
Some departments are resisting the trend, saying the details could put officers in danger.

Police departments nationwide have begun posting their guidelines for use of force against criminal suspects -- long a potential source of controversy -- on the Internet for the public to see.

"It's about transparency. We prefer the public know the policies we operate under, and that's especially useful with the use-of-force policy," says Jay Davies, police spokesman in Peoria, Ariz. Police in Peoria, a Phoenix suburb of about 156,000 people, posted its use-of-force policy online about a year ago, he says.

Police departments in Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago and Portland, Ore., also have posted their policies on their websites.

"We try to be very transparent with the community, and providing our policies online is one way to do that," says Sgt. Pete Simpson, a spokesman for Portland police.

Some departments are resisting the trend, saying the details of their policies could put officers in danger.

Police in Wilmington, Del., recently released a redacted version of their policy after disputes with the ACLU of Delaware and The News Journal newspaper. Most Delaware police agencies do not put their policies online.

"We made sure that, tactically, nothing is going to be out there that's going to be used against our officers," Wilmington Assistant City Solicitor Martin Meltzer says.

That resistance runs counter to the national move toward more openness, experts say.

"Today, there is much more pressure for accountability and transparency," says Maria Haberfeld, chairwoman of the Department of Law and Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

"It's not a secret society," says Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina and national expert on police use of force.

"They're empowered to enforce the law and use force when necessary," Alpert says. "What's the reason for keeping that secret? I don't think anyone is asking for their strategy of when they deploy the SWAT force or anything like that."

In September, the Justice Department released a report about Portland police officers' pattern of excessive force, especially against mentally ill suspects. As part of the police department's agreement to revise its policies and practices, it put draft use-of-force policies online and sought the public's feedback, Simpson says.

There is no concern that putting the policy manual online will give criminals an edge against the police, Simpson says. Information about interview techniques, surveillance methods and other tactics are not part of the manual.

"There's never been an issue of officer safety to have our rules out there," Simpson says.

Chalmers also reports for The News Journal in Wilmington, Del.

Copyright 2012 Gannett Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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