Local PDs, sheriff weigh in on police reform

With calls to “defund the police” following the death of George Floyd sparking nationwide protests, local law enforcement agencies shared their thoughts on the definition of the phrase, and outlined training and procedures each department has in place.

“I think the phrase means completely different things depending on who you ask. I believe one positive that has come out of the movement are real discussions about many of the social issues the police are routinely asked to address that have little to do with the actual functions of the police such as maintaining safety, enforcing laws and preventing, detecting and investigating criminal activity,” Weatherford Police Chief Lance Arnold said. “In fact, most police agencies spend much more time dealing with social issues than they do dealing with crime. I see a lot of extremism on one side or the other. I would like to see leaders on both sides engage in some real conversations about the issues including both equality and policing. The arguments from every side have been largely one-sided, which doesn’t help us find common ground.”

According to The Texas Tribune, the push to “defund the police” doesn’t always mean that people want police departments to lose all of their money, though some support abolishing law enforcement.

Mineral Wells Police Chief Dean Sullivan said it is important to consider the unintended consequences of such desires in “abolishing the police” versus that which is practical.

“If ‘defund the police’ is to suggest ‘abolish the police,’ then this position begs the question, to what end and by what means? It is important to consider the unintended consequences of such desires versus that which is practical,” Sullivan said. “However, with respect to some other proposals on ‘reallocation,’ ‘re-imagination’ or ‘redirection’ of funding the police function in the communities, that concept may have some merit and be worthy of further exploration. Consider that there is a direct correlation between community expectations and the demand for police service as related to those funds allocated to police. It is reasonable to conclude with a decrease in demand or diminished expectations there would be less need for the police.”

Defunding the police is not a good plan, Willow Park Police Chief Carrie West said.

“The primary objective at the most elementary level is to protect and serve. We as officers are charged with the responsibility to prevent crime and disorder. To do this effectively, we need the tools to perform our duties,” West said. “Where the division lies is that some agencies have become predominantly reactionary due to call load and personnel shortages. Reactive responses do not foster community relationships; proactive methods such as community policing build relationships, which are beneficial to effective policing of the community. The Willow Park Police Department practices proactive methods for our community.”

Hudson Oaks Police Chief Michael Baldwin said reallocating resources from law enforcement is an issue of local control and concern and should be addressed as such.

“When jurisdictions recognize needs in their communities, it is important to provide the proper resources to address those needs, including hiring non-sworn mental health professionals and social workers. Reallocating resources from law enforcement to these efforts, without preventing those agencies from providing the core functions their communities demand, that is a decision their citizens should decide,” Baldwin said. “Some jurisdictions may choose to dedicate more funding to law enforcement training and improved hiring efforts to address community needs. This is an issue of local control and concern and should be addressed as such.”

Last week, Austin and Dallas city councils asked city managers to propose cuts to police department funding in order to free up money for social services, according to The Texas Tribune. Supporters of the actions say rethinking budget priorities can make communities safer.

Parker County Sheriff Larry Fowler said any decision on the funding or defunding of their office would be a decision by the commissioners.

Protests

Protests have taken place worldwide following Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25. Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, was fired a day after the incident and charged on May 29 with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

“The peaceful protests are already having an effect,” West said. “There is an increased awareness regarding inequalities that still exist.”

Sullivan said ideally, there will and needs to be change.

“While incidents involving police were a catalyst for these protests, the real impetus at issue involves much deeper transgression than are evident,” Sullivan said. “Whether ‘police reform,’ ‘criminal justice reform,’ ‘procedural justice reform’ or ‘societal reform,’ we all need to come together to formulate a greater end. Unless and until we can appreciate one another, different and alike, meaningful discussions and progress may stall. The program may seem evident, but solution and lasting resolution will not happen overnight.”

Baldwin said all voices should be heard.

“Everyone should have a voice in how their community exists,” Baldwin said. “All voices should be heard, and the decision makers should make informed decisions based upon those voices of their community.”

Fowler said although he doesn’t have an opinion on the protests, he supports every American’s constitutional right to peaceably assemble.

Changes to procedures

As far as any changes stemming from recent events, Arnold said the Weatherford Police Department uploaded its entire policy manual to the website to further transparency.

“But WPD has been a Recognized Agency in the Texas Law Enforcement Best Practices Recognition Program since 2016. Our policies are compliant with 166 state law enforcement best practices,” Arnold said. “We feel our policies, procedures and training are aligned with our mission and values, but we still conduct at least annual reviews of our policies along with other key indicators which are also required by the Best Practices program.”

West said the WP Police Department has not made any procedural changes because the department is already operating with a focus on safety and security.

“In fact, we recently were awarded Recognized status from the Texas Police Chiefs Association,” West said. “This process closely examined our policies and procedures to ensure we are operating according to the best practices.”

Sullivan said policies are regularly reviewed and will be amended to reflect any additional standards or recommendations coming forth, and that the Mineral Wells Police Department continues to follow best practice standards similar to those set forth by the Texas Police Chiefs Association.

Baldwin said the Hudson Oaks Police Department has discussed current trends and every member is aware of their responsibility to their community and those they serve as a whole.

 Training

Arnold said the Weatherford Police Department has a very robust training program.

“For example, since January 2019, every sworn officer has attended the following training: De-escalation and Minimizing the Use of Force; Anti-Bias Training for Law Enforcement, Ethics in LE; Procedural Justice; Understanding and Responding to Excited Delirium Calls; Arrest, Search & Seizure; Use of Force; Public Recording of Activities; and Civilian Interaction,” Arnold said. “We also regularly apply de-escalation training while conducting yearly scenario training and quarterly simulator training.”

West said officers are legislatively mandated to attend de-escalation techniques limiting the use of force in public interaction and crisis intervention training.

The Mineral Wells Police Department also participates in use of force training.

“[MWPD] utilizes a Use of Force Continuum assessing and evaluating interactions and incidents to the specifics of that policy,” Sullivan said. “Relevant training topics on note include: conflict de-escalation, crisis intervention, cultural diversity, implicit bias and mental health encounters.”

Fowler said the Parker County Sheriff’s Office adheres to all rules set forth by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which include training requirements.

Baldwin said the Hudson Oaks Police Department have received crisis intervention training as well as de-escalation training.

“We are sending as many officers as possible to mental health peace officer training and have had mental disabilities training,” Baldwin said. “We train our officers in basic first aid to assist injured persons where needed. This department is inherently a community policing agency by its very nature, which is instilled in all aspects of training.”

Use of force

Arnold said the vast majority of arrests and contacts do not result in the use of force.

“Every use of force is reported and reviewed up the chain of command to the chief,” Arnold said. “In 2019, WPD responded to more than 50,000 calls for service and conducted more than 15,000 traffic stops. Force was used a total of eight times in 2019. Officers displayed, but did not deploy, a taser in three of the incidents and they pointed a firearm, but did not shoot, in two of the incidents. The race/ethnicity of those involved were: Six white, one black, one hispanic. We received no complaints of excessive force.”

West quoted the Willow Park Police Department’s General Order 800 policy on use of force.

“The department recognizes and respects the value and special integrity of each human life. In vesting police employees with the lawful authority to use force to protect the public welfare, a careful balancing of all human interests is required,” according to the policy. “Therefore, it is the policy of this department that persons authorized to use force, in conjunction with their assigned duties, shall use only that force that is reasonably necessary to effectively bring an incident under control, while protecting the lives of the employee or another.”

Fowler said his agency adheres to state law, including Chapter 9 of the Texas Penal Code.

“Chapter 9 dictates the amount of force a law enforcement officer may lawfully use when affecting an arrest,” Fowler said. “County sheriffs are elected to enforce the laws as they are written and passed by Texas state legislature. I take my oath of office seriously.”

The Mineral Wells Police Department utilizes a similar policy to Willow Park.

Sullivan listed prohibited actions, which include warning shots; shooting at or from a moving vehicle, very limited exceptions; application of choke-holds, carotid-control restraints, extreme exceptions and only when deadly force is otherwise justified and necessary; and use of flashlight as baton, extreme exceptions and only when deadly force is otherwise justified or necessary.

Baldwin the Hudson Oaks PD’s police, which states, “The use of force must be objectively reasonable. The officer must use only the force that a reasonably prudent officer would use under the same or similar circumstances. The officer should utilize de-escalation techniques whenever possible, before using any force greater than verbal commands. Neck-restraining techniques are prohibited unless when deadly force would be authorized. Hogtie restraints are prohibited.

“Our agency has several other limitations to the use of force,” he said.

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