Local law enforcement agencies release use-of-force policies

Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office released the policies for five of the county’s largest law enforcement agencies that show how they include “8 Can’t Wait” initiatives.

The death of George Floyd May 25 while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota has prompted many requests for local law enforcement agencies to review their practices on use-of-force.

Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office recently released the policies from the county’s largest law enforcement agencies, including the sheriff's office, and Clearwater, Largo, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg police departments.

In a press release, the sheriff’s office said it had received inquiries specifically related to the "8 Can't Wait" campaign, which is a nationwide movement aimed at police reform that advocates say is a way to reduce harm by law enforcement.

“The ‘8 Can’t Wait’ initiative is an imperative and pertinent discussion we must be willing to address with the members of our community,” said Pinellas Park Police Chief Michael Haworth in a written statement. “Our citizens must have the utmost confidence in their law enforcement professionals. Our personnel must also embrace the importance of their community’s support in the evolution of their partnership with the community.”

Tampa Bay Newspapers reviewed the five agencies’ policies and found they all contain “8 Can’t Wait” measures.

1. Ban on chokeholds and strangleholds

The sheriff's office, and Clearwater, Largo, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg police departments all ban the use of chokeholds and strangleholds except where deadly force is warranted to prevent death or great bodily harm to law enforcement or another person.

Clearwater PD has revised its policy to state, “Officers are prohibited from utilizing any technique which compresses an individual’s airway or compromises blood flow to the brain (i.e. carotid restraint, chokehold, etc.) Such techniques are considered deadly force and shall not be utilized unless necessary during a deadly force encounter.”

2. Require de-escalation

The sheriff’s office policy states that force is to be used only “when necessary in self-defense, in defense of another, to overcome physical resistance to arrest, to achieve compliance or custody, or to prevent escape of an arrested person.”

“The use of necessary force is permitted only after all other reasonable means of effecting compliance have failed,” according to Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter.

Largo requires its officers to use de-escalation techniques and all reasonable alternatives to the use of force. St. Petersburg’s policy says de-escalation is the “preferred method” in many critical incidents. Pinellas Park requires de-escalation before use of force occurs.

3. Require warning before shooting

All five agencies require a verbal warning be given before shooting when possible. The sheriff’s office requires a verbal warning before the use of weapons, including electronic control weapons or aerosol spray.

Clearwater PD requires verbal warnings before use of deadly weapons when possible and before the use of an electronic control weapon when practical.

Pinellas Park’s policy says the warning should be used when it is safe to do so and includes a qualifier that says situations that require an immediate response to preserve “the life of an innocent person may not have time for a warning.”

4. Require exhausting all alternatives before shooting

All agencies’ policies address use alternatives before deadly force or shooting.

The sheriff’s office revised its policy to clarify the “use of deadly force is permitted after all other reasonable means of effecting compliance have failed or reasonably and articulably appear unlikely to succeed if tried.”

Clearwater, Largo and St. Petersburg police department require officers to exhaust all means before using deadly force, which should only be used to prevent death or great bodily harm to the officer or a another person.

Pinellas Park’s policy also says “use of deadly force is always an option of last resort.”

5. Duty to intervene

All agencies’ policies include instructions on the duty to intervene, and the sheriff’s office changed its policy to require all members to “intervene to prevent or stop any other member from violating any law or regulation, including preventing any deputy from using unnecessary or excessive force.”

Clearwater PD employees are required to report misconduct and officers are trained on their “obligation to report a person using excessive force.”

As a result of Floyd’s death, the Clearwater updated its policy to state, “In the event a member of the agency witnesses unnecessary or excessive force, the member shall immediately intervene, summon medical assistance and/or administer treatment commensurate their level of training if needed, and notify a supervisor as soon as practical.”

Largo’s policy states that officers have a duty to intervene if they see “unethical, improper or unlawful behavior by a colleague.” Officers also are required to intervene and stop the use of any force outside the department’s guidelines. When appropriate, they should report the incident to their immediate supervisor or the Office of Professional Standards.

“Members who fail to take legally prescribed action when confronted with misconduct share the burden of guilt,” the policy states.

6. Ban shooting at moving vehicles

The sheriff’s office has a policy that prohibits shooting at moving vehicles. Clearwater police officers are not allowed to shoot at a moving vehicle unless there is no other alternative.

Largo PD restricts shooting at moving vehicles unless the occupants directly threaten the life of an officer or other person. Pinellas Park’s policy also restricts shooting at moving vehicles “unless absolutely necessary and when there is a clear danger posed by the driver or passenger” to another person.

St. Petersburg’s policy also bans shooting at moving vehicles unless there is an immediate safety threat.

7. Require use-of-force continuum

The agencies all use an extended use-of-force continuum. The sheriff’s office’s is comprised of 14 different orders and outlines different types of resistance: aggressive, deadly or passive, and the degree of force that should be used in response. Deadly force may only be used in defense of a human life.

Clearwater PD has a “use of force matrix” that identifies six levels of resistance and 16 responses broken down into seven levels of response as its use-of-force continuum. Largo PD uses a use-of-force continuum similar to Clearwater’s that includes recommended responses to different levels of resistance.

St. Petersburg PD also has a lengthy policy that addresses situations that may require only verbal direction up to the use of deadly force, which by policy should be “limited to the force which is needed to halt aggressive actions and/or to overcome specific resistance.”

Pinellas Park PD requires the use of the lowest level of force necessary to gain compliance.

8. Require comprehensive reporting

PCSO requires comprehensive reporting for all uses of force. A supervisor must immediately be notified. If deadly force is used, a supervisor should be requested to respond to the scene and the Robbery/Homicide Unit will investigate.

Clearwater requires comprehensive reporting when an officer is involved in pointing a firearm, use of a “takedown” or when actions result in injury. The on-day supervisor must be notified.

Largo requires its officers to report the discharge of a firearm, any actions that result in injury or death of another person, the use of force through the use of a weapon, physical force including pointing a firearm or electronic control weapon or use of a spit sock hood, which prevents a person from spitting at an officer or inside a law enforcement vehicle.

Pinellas Park’s policy requires officers to complete reports whenever a firearm is used, discharged or pointed at person. The same rule applies to the use of an electronic control weapon, or when they physically take a person to the ground, pin them against an object or apply weaponless use of force to make an arrest. The reports are reviewed by a supervisor.

St. Petersburg requires investigating and reporting anytime lethal or nonlethal force is used resulting in serious physical injury or death.

“Pinellas County law enforcement agencies are aware of our citizens' concerns and are working toward common goals and unified policies to ensure confidence between law enforcement and the citizens we serve,” according to a statement from the sheriff’s office.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.