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Mar 20

Is Police Use of Force on the rise?

Posted on March 20, 2017 at 11:53 AM by Office of the Chief

One of the more contentious aspects of policing is the use of force, ranging from bare hand force all the way up to the use of lethal force. While most of the attention in the media has been on the use of lethal force, on a daily basis, bare-hand or minimal force is by far the most dominant use of force for most police agencies in the US. The biggest evolution of technology as well as training and court cases over the last 5-10 years has been about less-lethal force, however. By “less lethal”, we mean force that has the potential to be lethal, but in general, its use isn’t likely to result in death. Examples of less-lethal force are “bean-bag” rounds, Electronic Control Devices (EDC’s such as Taser branded), etc.

Often overlooked in the analysis of police use of force is the fact that EVERY encounter with a person and involving a police officer is an “armed” encounter; this is due to the fact that police officers carry weapons, so at least one of the persons involved is always armed. This may sound like a silly distinction, but the number of officers assaulted with their own weapons is significant enough to bear in mind that the presence of the gun poses unique risks to all involved.

Another factor seemingly ignored in the media discussion about police use of force is the growing trend of assaults on officers. Data gleaned from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report over a period from 2011-2015 revealed an annual average of 48,351 officers assaulted. During this same time frame, the annual average of knife and gun assaults against officers included in that total is 2901; however, when factoring in ANY dangerous weapon, the annual average jumps to 14,370. Just to provide some additional perspective…..it is widely reported that the approximate number of law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. is about 18,000. And absent a national data base of deaths due to police use of lethal force, the range of estimates based on self-reporting, CDC medical reports, and media summaries reveals an annual average of less than 1000 incidents a year. This is contrasted by the average number of deaths from murders (17,793), deaths by falls (in 2015, 32,696), deaths from traffic crashes (in 2015, 37,757), deaths from accident poisoning (in 2015, 47,478), deaths by suicide (in 2015, 44,145) and deaths from medical errors (in 2015, 251,454).

While the numbers above provide some assurance that police use of lethal force is relatively low when compared to assaults on officers and other causes of unnatural deaths, a remaining question is, what is the trend line? Are police using lethal force at an increasing rate? Again the data gathered from the FBI and CDC shows that deaths from police use of force have been declining as long as data has been gathered, while the US population has been increasing. One can look to a couple of major city agencies that often drive the total numbers for more detailed analysis. In 1971, the New York City PD averaged 29.4 police shootings per week. In that same year, the Philadelphia PD averaged 1.5 police shootings per week. In a recent analysis, the Washington Post reported a current average NATIONWIDE of about 19 deaths from police shootings per week (a dramatic decrease when compared with NYPD alone!), while the US Population is 59% larger today than in 1971! In the last three years, the Newport News Police has had one fatal shooting by the police, and 3 non-fatal shootings. (NOTE: This number does not include canines or an accidental discharge of weapon)

Just for perspective, in the 40 years that I’ve been in policing, the number of officers killed in the line of duty has declined as well. In the late 1970’s, officer deaths averaged over 200 annually. In 2013, we hit the lowest number of officers killed annually since the 1940’s; however, this number has climbed since then, with more attention being paid to the increase in gun related deaths of officers. Given the high profile nature of some of the reported ambush killings of officers in the last two years, many officers across the country today are deeply concerned about this trend line. This is truly a case where the “good old days” weren’t so good, and we don’t want to return to them.

Another aspect of the national narrative on police use of lethal force that has not been explored in depth is the issue of police killing of unarmed persons. There is often the thought that unarmed = defenseless or helpless; the data shows otherwise. Each year in the US, roughly 3000 (of the 17,000 ) murders occur at the hands of “unarmed” persons, which the Washington Post defined as anyone not using a gun, knife, or motor vehicle. In this definition, “unarmed” persons could be using clubs, axes, bricks, etc. And, I refer back to my earlier comment that in every police encounter, a gun is involved, and attempting to wrestle away the officer’s gun might be by an “unarmed” person. In fact, for the last year where data was documented, 11% of officers killed in the line of duty were killed by “unarmed” suspects. Conversely, 9% of citizens killed by the police were “unarmed” by the Post’s definition. I recently read an outstanding book analyzing every single police killing of an “unarmed” person in 2015, and it was illuminating. While the authors are police subject matter experts, they were candid in pointing the finger at the leading contributing factor resulting in the death, including wrongful acts of the police. In many cases, persons under the influence of drugs and/or experiencing a major mental health episode were in the process of a serious assault against an officer who then acted in self-defense. For additional reference, I highly recommend the book In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians by Selby, Singleton, and Flosi.

As I hope you can see, while the national narrative has been dominated by the discussion on police use of lethal force, it remains a rare and isolated occurrence. Locally, the majority of force used by officers is at the lowest end of the spectrum. Our data shows the number of use-of-force incidents our officers have been involved in has steadily declined in the past four years and in 2016 Newport News officers were involved in 56 use-of-force incidents. Per policy, officers in the Newport News PD are required to complete a “Use of Force Report” whenever the following occur: (a) an officer discharges a firearm or less-lethal munitions, (b) when the use of force results in visible injury or death, (c) when someone complains of an injury inflicted by an officer’s use of force, (d) whenever pepper spray is used, (e) where defensive or active resistance is employed against an officer, (f) whenever an impact weapon is employed in an offensive manner, and (g) whenever an electronic controlled device is employed in a police encounter with a suspect. We review and track all uses of force, fully comply with the international accreditation standards on use of force, and incorporate what we learn from our analysis into the regular training we provide to officers.

You can be assured that your local officers are well trained in not only the decision making process regarding the use of force, but also in knowing what tools to use and when to use them. And, our officers can be assured that we stand behind them when following the training and policy guidance they’re provided. It’s a tough job being a police officer today, largely due to controversies surrounding use of force, so we owe it to our officers and the community to get it right.
Mar 01

Policing the Police-Integrity comes First

Posted on March 1, 2017 at 3:45 PM by Office of the Chief

I recently reviewed our annual summary and analysis conducted by the Office of Professional Standards within NNPD. This division oversees several very important functions, the biggest of which include our Training component and our Internal Affairs component. Training includes both our In-Service and Specialty training programming (for existing employees) and our Academy (for new hires). While most new hires receive some sort of training, the Academy mostly applies to sworn officers and dispatchers, both of which have their own academy program. In this blog post, however, I will be discussing the important role of the Internal Affairs section and their critical function of sustaining integrity within our organization.

Unlike what Hollywood portrays about Internal Affairs, I’ve never heard anyone here refer to the folks who work there as the “rat squad.” The Office of Professional Standards Captain oversees a Lieutenant and several Sgt.’s who in turn conduct the serious Internal Affairs (IA) investigations. But, these represent only a portion of the investigations and reviews that we do in response to concerns or complaints.

We divide up complaints against employees into two basic types: minor, routine complaints (most often these deal with courtesy concerns, minor policy violations, and often result from misunderstandings or poor transactions/interactions between police officers and citizens) and serious complaints (excessive force complaints, accusations of criminal nature, substance abuse, etc.). Occasionally, what starts out as a relatively informal, minor review by a supervisor at a precinct may grow into a more formal, serious IA investigation, but that happens only occasionally and is completely driven by where the evidence takes us.

Contrary to what many people believe, we try to come into each of these from a neutral perspective. Many citizens think we approach these with the sole purpose of “helping officers get away with bad conduct,” while some officers think the sole purpose is to “find a way to put the screws on an officer.” Neither is accurate. I have long described the process of Internal Affairs as being “seekers of truth” and like any investigation, you go where the evidence and facts take you. Sometimes we don’t enjoy where those facts take us….sometimes, they reveal a level of hatred against the police coupled with fabricated stories seeking to get an officer in trouble just for doing their job. Occasionally, they reveal a deeper, darker side to an employee that we were not previously aware of and a recognition that we have to protect our community and our agency from the destructive conduct at hand. Gratefully I can report to you that the latter scenario is not a prevalent one in the overall profession of policing, and our experience locally reveals that it is quite infrequent.

The introduction of Body Worn Cameras (BWC) a few years ago has changed much in the IA world. Video, as a whole, is ubiquitous now, with almost everyone we have contact with owning a cellular phone that includes video capability. Every officer assigned to uniform patrol, and most assigned to other positions that likely have direct citizen contact are now equipped with BWC’s in Newport News, notwithstanding the occasional equipment malfunction, breakdown, etc. As a result, both patrol based supervisors and IA investigators rely on video to provide a recorded perspective on what occurred, what was and was not said, and some ability to validate or refute the reported complaint. But, video isn’t the panacea that everyone thinks it is. The angle of the camera can result in critical views being blocked, or some audio gets distorted in a noisy environment, or the angle of the video shot provides a perspective that contrasts significantly with what a human eye might perceive at that same instant. Still, the BWC’s are a quantum leap forward in being able to discern fact from fiction in analyzing complaints, and most of our officers now recognize that the video images from their cameras are a great source of affirmation of the great work they do.

Recently, a citizen called to complain about an officer’s conduct, and the IA staff first reviewed the video. When they contacted the complainant and offered her the chance to come discuss what they saw on the video, she backed off completely. This is not an unusual response. On the up side, it helps us clear up either frivolous or inaccurate concerns. On the down side, it is also indicative that too many times, people are trying to get police officers in trouble when they may know the officer did nothing wrong.

On the other hand, the police culture isn’t great about understanding that average citizens who haven’t been trained and are unaware of all of our policies and official tactics may just interpret our actions in a contrary way than our intentions may be. This is where making a complaint can result in mutual learning; our officers can learn how sometimes, just doing your job can have an adverse impact on an average citizen in a way we didn’t intend. And, citizens can learn that sometimes officers act in defensive ways because we train and expect them to do that, that a police officer doesn’t know who they’re interacting with or what threat they may pose until far into the transaction, and in today’s world where police officers have been assaulted and killed simply sitting in their patrol cars, we’re striving for a balance of approachability with safety.

I like “teachable moments”, no matter if it’s the police or the public that can learn. Most of the time, it’s both. One of the reasons I advocate so strongly for Community Oriented/Problem Solving Policing as an operating philosophy is because it leads to much greater mutual understanding between the police and the public we serve. The more we know you, and the more you know us, the more comfortable we are exchanging ideas, learning what to expect from each other, and a safer world we’ll live in.

I’ll close with some statistics from our IA annual report, so that you can see how few interactions we have that result in complaints. We will soon be documenting the less formal, precinct level reviews to be more consistent with our data collection, and so future year reports may look a little different, but the biggest thing we look for are trend lines. In this regard, our trend is for fewer complaints, consistent accountability, and professional deliver of service. A final thought: there are not many occupations that invite consumers to make complaints if they feel aggrieved, and our willingness to fairly and accurately ‘police ourselves’ is a testament to the integrity that we hold as our most fragile and important quality. But, in the event anyone thinks it is sport to falsely accuse, or mess with the livelihood of good cops trying to do the right thing day in and day out, please understand that my personal belief is that we should and will explore all legal options to pursue such false reports up to and including criminal prosecution if appropriate. What’s fair for one is fair for all….that’s what I was raised to believe!

Individual Administrative Investigations - 2016
Total Number of Investigations 36
Number of Completed Investigations 24
Number of Investigations Pending Disciplinary Action 12 

Dispositions for Completed Investigations:
Substantiated 21
Not Substantiated 1
Unfounded 0
Exonerated 2
Refused to Cooperate/Withdrawn 0 

Definitions:
Substantiated: The allegation is supported by sufficient evidence to justify a reasonable conclusion that the allegation is factual.

Not substantiated: There is insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the allegation occurred.

Unfounded: The allegation is unfounded in that it has been proven to be false or not factual.

Exonerated: The incident occurred, but was lawful and proper.

Refused to cooperate: The complainant refused to cooperate with the investigation and a determination cannot be made.

Withdrawn: The complaint may be classified as "withdrawn" in the following instances: 
 
    1. The complainant has decided not to pursue the original allegation, and there is no evidence to warrant a continued investigation; or 
 
    2. There is no criminal nexus to the complaint, and it involves a sole employee, who separates employment from the City prior to the commencement of the investigation, or during the investigation process.
Feb 21

Keeping Your Neighborhoods Safe

Posted on February 21, 2017 at 9:06 AM by Office of the Chief

As our society has changed in terms of social interaction, collectively we also need to change our behaviors in terms of crime prevention and community wellness.

In the “good old days”, relationships among neighbors were very strong. As a kid, my father always warned me that if I got in trouble either in school or in the neighborhood, he had fully empowered everyone to discipline me accordingly, and I’d get it twice as bad when I got home! Note, even way back then, we weren’t talking about corporal punishment, I didn’t get beatings, it was effective and appropriate discipline meted out with care. In turn, many times I heard my dad’s booming voice yelling at other kids in the neighborhood when they were about to ride their bike out into the street at risk of getting hit by a car or tossing a ball perilously close to someone’s window. In short, everyone looked out for everybody else, and low crime was the outcome of it all.

In 2000, Robert Putnam published a book called Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it, he described “…how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures…”. He observed that our society’s isolationism even extended to social activity, such as the fact that even though more Americans were bowling than ever before, bowling leagues were dying as more folks went “bowling alone.” I can only imagine how Putnam would write an updated version today, with the further social isolationism that has resulted from ubiquitous smartphones, social media, on-line gaming, etc.

A few years ago, when our youngest still lived at home, she once texted me asking what time dinner was….from her bedroom while I was in the kitchen! Rather than return the text, I walked to her bedroom and answered the question, and told her, next time just come ask. Since then, I’ve watched as young couples on a date barely speak, instead playing games and texting with each other while seated adjacent. It is as if the art of conversation is going the route of league bowling.

Criminals who prey on neighborhoods exploit this level of social isolationism. They know that all too often, one neighbor doesn’t know the next, what cars belong and what people are regularly seen there. They know that people are very unlikely to confront them if they boldly try to open a window to gain entry, or move from car to car on a street looking for unlocked doors (for which there are often an abundance).

In spite of the evolution of American society towards a more individualistic orientation, some neighborhoods have sustained a sense of synergy and community well-being. Not surprisingly, those that do tend sense lower crime rates and enjoy an overall higher perception of safety and security. Ultimately, the relationships within a neighborhood cannot be defined or mandated by local police or any level of government for that matter; it is truly up to residents to decide what kinds of interactions and relationship they’re going to have with their neighbors. But, the Newport News Police Department has services and ideas to help any neighborhood that desires to increase the level of synergy and interaction among neighbors towards the goal of increasing community safety.

Neighborhood Watch is a tried and true method that has been around for many years, but its premise is still strong. Block-by-block, a designated “block captain” takes on some responsibility for keeping information flowing to the rest of their neighbors about important topics like target hardening, crime prevention, and data from the PD about crime events in their surrounding area. Some neighborhoods even organize Neighborhood Watch Patrols wherein trained volunteers make observations while they walk their dog or push the stroller, looking out for potential threats to the peace of the neighborhood. Note that these are usually not geared towards crimes in progress, but more to quality of life concerns that are not emergencies. For crimes in progress, Neighborhood Watch has a good record of educating residents HOW to best call for the police, WHAT information the police will need, WHEN to call, and HOW to be a good witness. In Newport News, we also have a Coalition in which Neighborhood Watch groups across the city come together and have periodic meetings and an annual gathering to provide ongoing education.

Reflecting the modern times use of social media, in Newport News we’ve also embraced the use of a website and app that is tailored to neighborhoods: Nextdoor. (www.nextdoor.com) I jokingly refer to Nextdoor as Facebook for neighborhoods! It is a way to organize and increase neighborhood awareness and information exchange, and users can set it up to receive information strictly limited to their neighborhood, or to specify which adjacent neighborhoods to also receive information from. The NNPD social media coordinator and the City’s communication department regularly use Nextdoor to push important announcements and information out to our residents in a very timely manner. For example, if a storm hits and will delay trash pickup on your street, that information is likely to be posted on your neighborhood’s Nextdoor page. Nextdoor isn’t perfect; sometimes folks use it as if it was Facebook and it can start to digress into personal opinions on issues that may or may not be of interest to all in the neighborhood. But, the filtering system is easy to use, allowing one to block a particular message stream if they’re disinterested in a topic. On the upside, it provides a direct link from neighbor to neighbor on important information including suspicious activity and crime updates, to improve the chances of increasing community safety. Users can also send direct messages to our Department using the private messaging feature or the ‘send to police’ feature. Our social media coordinator will then distribute those messages to the appropriate precinct or division.

The change described in Bowling Alone is a real thing. It can be very discouraging when our Department hosts a community meeting and gears up for 1000 attendees (a tiny fraction of residents for a city of over 180,000 population) and instead we get a couple hundred. For two years we’ve had an organized process that has become known as C.R.I.M.E. (Creating Responsibility in My Environment) that resulted in several work groups each focusing on specific goals for our community in reducing crime and increasing quality of life. We have held 3 or 4 community-wide meetings to increase community engagement in the process, and while the bad news is that attendance is nowhere near the capacity we have to include folks, the good news is that the quantity is made up for in the quality of the community members who have stepped up and participated. The same could be said about Neighborhood Watch; we could easily double the number of watch blocks involved in our programs, but we DO have many quality block clubs that are doing outstanding work, so many, in fact, that I can’t begin to get to all of the National Night Out events held each summer by the many groups.

If you’d like to become involved in a C.R.I.M.E. group or for more information, visit: https://www.nnva.gov/1908/CRIME-Project or visit the CRIME Initiative Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/CRIMEInitiative/.

If you’d like information on Neighborhood Watch in Newport News, visit https://www.nnva.gov/384/Neighborhood-Watch-Coalition. From that site you can review booklets and learn more about starting a Neighborhood Watch group in your neighborhood. If you have any questions, feel free to contact our Community Programs Unit at 757-928-4295.

To see if your neighborhood is on Nextdoor, go to https://nextdoor.com/city/newport-news--va/ or to sign your neighborhood up for a Nextdoor site, visits www.nextdoor.com. You can follow the Newport News Police Department on NextDoor by visiting https://nextdoor.com/agency-detail/va/newport-news/newport-news-police-department/.