Police Foundation Vice President Jim Burch moderated the briefing, which brought together law enforcement leaders and industry representatives of firms that produce less-lethal technologies. The briefing was presented to House congressional staff involved in criminal justice policy.
Caucus co-chairman Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-New Jersey, said the briefing was in response to the need to ensure that police continue to have the resources to protect themselves and the community, but also become more responsive to concerns about police use of force.
“Continuing advances in technologies offering less-than-lethal force offer the potential for police to maintain that protection, while reducing the possibility of death to suspects,” Pascrell said.
Burch, the former Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, noted that a study conducted by the National Institute of Justice found that, when officers used less-lethal technology like pepper spray to aid arrests, those taken into custody were 65 percent less likely to suffer serious injury than when officers made arrests using only their hands.
Burch, Pascrell and caucus co-chairman Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Washington, emphasized that it is important for police departments to engage with their community on the use of force and efforts by the department to limit it through training and policies.
“Two-way communication with the community is critical,” Burch said. “We have to have greater transparency about the policies and procedures, the training and the data showing the low frequency that these things are used.”
The most common less-lethal technologies currently used by police departments are pepper spray and electro-shock weapons like Tasers, law enforcement leaders said at the briefing. Others include “blunt-force” projectiles, such as bean-bag rounds for shotguns. Although these technologies are designed to limit fatalities, the police leaders agreed that they could be lethal without proper training and care.
Most departments require a supervisor to be involved any time that less-lethal force is used, police leaders said. The New York Police Department will only allow Tasers to be used by sergeants or higher-level officers, said NYPD Inspector Raymond Caroli.
Caroli noted that both Tasers and pepper spray are very rarely used by NYPD officers. Out of more than 113,000 arrests by uniformed police in 2014, only 177 involved Tasers, and just 277 involved pepper spray. There were just 80 police-involved shootings in 2014, he said.
“The resolution of these arrests was through the communications skills of the officers, with no force involved the vast majority of time,” Caroli said.
Conflict resolution has also been given a high priority by the Spokane Police Department in Washington, according to SPD Sgt. Kevin Keller. The department instituted a 40-hour crisis intervention training for the entire department, including de-escalation skills, sensitivity to those suffering mental disorders and less-lethal strategies, he said. Since all officers have completed the course, the department has seen a 22 percent reduction in use of force.