Crime & Justice

5 things you need to know about the LAPD’s new de-escalation policy

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck says he hopes the new de-escalation policy will result in fewer police shootings.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck says he hopes the new de-escalation policy will result in fewer police shootings.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

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The five-member civilian Los Angeles Police Commission Tuesday approved an amendment to the LAPD’s use of force policy that requires officers to try to use de-escalation tactics to avoid shooting suspects. 

The new policy reads: "Officers shall attempt to control an incident by using time, distance, communications and available resources in an effort to de-escalate the situation, whenever it is safe and reasonable to do so."

If an officer doesn't follow this policy in the lead up to a shooting or other use of force, he could be subject to discipline.

Here are five things you need to know about the new policy:

1. The LAPD always has trained officers to try to de-escalate situations before resorting to the use of deadly force.

But in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Ezell Ford in South L.A. in 2014, police departments around the country have been under increasing public pressure to avoid shooting people – especially unarmed and mentally ill people, but also armed suspects. For more than a year, the LAPD has re-trained officers in the use of de-escalation tactics in response to this pressure and demands from the police commission, which oversees the department. For example, the LAPD’s "Force Option Simulator," an interactive computer program used for training, now presents officers with fewer scenarios that require them to use deadly force and more that require them to use de-escalation tactics.

For an in-depth look at officer-involved shootings at the LAPD, L.A. Sheriff's Department and other police agencies, see KPCC's Officer Involved Project

2. The de-escalation tactics may seem obvious. Officers are being encouraged to slow down situations, when possible, by creating more distance between them and the suspect and taking cover.

They are being urged to use voice commands or empathy to calm suspects and urge them to voluntarily cooperate. And LAPD cops are being told they need to more often use other resources at hand – whether that is less than lethal weapons like Tasers and beanbag shotguns or additional officers and mental health workers who may be able to help corral a suspect.

"Hopefully it will result in more lives saved in the coming year," said Chief Charlie Beck. The re-training may already be working: the department's Use of Force Year End Review found officers were involved in 40 shootings in 2016, eight fewer than the year before. Meanwhile, the use of Tazers is up 35 percent, according to the report.

3. The Los Angeles Police Protective League – the union that represents rank and file cops – is endorsing the new policy.

In the past, the union has expressed concerns about placing more emphasis on de-escalation. It famously opposed a decision by Chief Beck to create a "Preservation of Life" award for officers who were able to avoid using deadly force in situations where they legally could have used it. The league argued the award would lead to officers hesitating in life or death situations.

But the league, which the department was obligated to consult about the policy change under union rules, issued a statement Tuesday supporting it: "We worked hard to formalize these values into a department policy that will provide for the ability of police officers to protect their personal safety and the safety of innocent bystanders."

4. Not everyone supports the new policy.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said in a letter to the police commission that while it is "encouraged by the LAPD’s move toward de-escalation," the new policy was insufficient because it was placed only in the preamble of the use of force guidelines. The ACLU said doing so "left ambiguous whether the de-escalation provisions are requirements or toothless introductory statements."  

Other activists said word changes would do little at a department with a long history of controversial uses of force. "If you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig," said Michael Novick.

5. The policy change is the partial adoption of an exhaustive report and recommendations by the police commission’s Inspector General, Alex Bustamante. It is also one of several changes being pushed by the police commission and its president Matthew Johnson, a powerful entertainment lawyer appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Another policy change on the horizon is the release of video from cameras worn by officers. Right now, the LAPD releases virtually no video from body worn cameras, cameras mounted on patrol car dashboards or security cameras from private businesses obtained as evidence. But the commission has hired the Policing Project of NYU Law School to conduct a series of public hearings to determine what the public, rank-and-file cops and others want the department to handle police videos. Johnson has said he favors a much more open policy of releasing more videos, including videos of officers shooting people.