By Derek Wilson
Amid calls for changes to law enforcement, police departments around Marin County want residents to know they are responding.
“Novato is one of the leaders in Marin County, if not California, in the progressiveness of our policies,” Novato Police Chief Matt McCaffrey said. “Post-George Floyd, people are calling for the use of body-worn cameras. We’re already doing that. People are calling for reviews when force is used. We’ve been doing that for years. People are calling for a focus more on deescalation. That’s been a priority for us for a long time. We’ve been doing all these things for years already.”
McCaffrey said more changes could be coming to police departments across the state as of January 1, 2021. The San Rafael Police Department is taking more immediate action after Chief Diana Bishop, with advice from a civilian task force, proposed policy changes regarding the use of force by police. Those changes were approved Aug. 17 by the San Rafael City Council.
Many of the changes to the written policy regarding the use of force were made to change language and make it more clear for the public and officers what is expected of the police.
Bishop said changes would ban the use of carotid and choke holds, except in specific situations. She said, however, that the department has not encouraged the use of such holds because of difficulty in training to use the holds.
And, despite however it might be exciting to see a police chase in the movies, Bishop testified that it is not effective to try to “shoot from or at a moving vehicle, so it’s just not a good idea.”
McCaffrey said the Novato PD had previously banned the use of carotid holds and chokeholds to subdue suspects.
The first two pages of the more than 600-page Novato PD manual include the Chief’s Preface and the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, which reads in part:
“As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is to serve the community; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality and justice.”
However, officers on patrol are still left on their own to make decisions.
“It’s trust, but trust that’s verified,” McCaffrey said. “Our officers are supervised and held accountable. We make sure they are walking the walk. Culture eats policy for lunch. You can have all the great policy in the world, but if you’re not following it, policy doesn’t matter.”
In San Rafael, the police department is increasingly placing a greater emphasis on avoiding the use of force by deescalating and defusing potentially violent situations. With some of the new language in the San Rafael PD policy, officers are actually expected to stop fellow officers from the unnecessary use of force. Officers are also expected to report the use of force — whether deemed necessary or unnecessary — and officers are expected to be protected from retaliation within the department when reporting a possible case of the unnecessary use of force to superiors.
In a public announcement, Bishop wrote “Police professionals across our nation are being asked to address issues of use of force, racial injustice, and to look at practices and procedures in a new light. As the leader of the San Rafael Police Department I want to assure our community that our department is committed to being part of the solution and working with City leaders and our community to find better ways for us to serve. We in law enforcement must continue to improve and hold ourselves to a higher standard.
“The men and women of the San Rafael Police Department are committed to providing professional, fair, compassionate, and dedicated law enforcement with integrity and respect. We place the highest value on human life and that value supports our training in areas such as de-escalation, use of force options, and Crisis Intervention Training. We strive to hire officers who are empathetic, compassionate, have a strong duty to serve, and who want to make a positive difference in their community. No officer wants to use force in the course of his or her duties.
“I am proud of the work that each of our officers and professional staff perform each day for our community. I believe we conduct ourselves with the community’s best interests in mind and give our best effort every day. Our community is watching as City leaders and our Police Department respond to the challenges facing us. People are waiting for actions, not words. I stand ready, along with my fellow officers, to work with our community to listen and make changes that guarantee the safety and security of human and civil rights for all people in San Rafael.”
“A lot of what the task force brought up, we had already written,” Bishop said, noting that the San Rafael Police Department receives a lot of written policies from Lexipol, a professional organization that provides policies to many departments, including Novato.
The policies provided by Lexipol are largely based on established laws, and those elements can not be changed, according to McCaffrey. There are other elements that can be altered and other policies specific to the community can be added. As McCaffrey said, “Policy is always evolving.”
“The use of force is a great topic to talk about,” Bishop said. “The final product we come up with will be a bellwether for other departments to look at.”
(You can reach Derek Wilson at email@example.com.)