Minneapolis police unveil new emphasis on de-escalation, community relations

Minneapolis police chief Janee Harteau
Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau outlined a series of policy changes she says she's instituting in her department, aimed at de-escalating potentially violent encounters with law enforcement at a press conference Monday in Minneapolis.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Updated: 5:19 p.m. | Posted: 2:20 p.m.

Minneapolis police are going to slow down and try to avoid potentially violent confrontations, under a series of policy initiatives unveiled at police headquarters Monday.

The key changes require officers to try not using force in law enforcement encounters — to back off, seek cover or otherwise try to avoid violent and potentially deadly confrontations.

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"I'm not asking officers to put themselves in harm's way any more than they already are. But it's OK to move," said Police Chief Janee Harteau.

The policy also said "sanctity of life" will be the highest priority in use of force situations, and that officers will be required to intervene and to report a colleague if they see inappropriate uses of force.

The announcement comes nearly nine months after an officer shot and killed a black man during a struggle at the doors of a paramedic rig in north Minneapolis. The death of Jamar Clark was followed by weeks of protest and outcry.

Harteau said the changes were under consideration even before the Clark shooting, dating back to the release of the findings of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing in May 2015.

The chief declined to say whether her officers would have handled the Clark incident differently under the changes.

"I can't speculate. Every situation is different, and we could 'what if' on just about everything," Harteau said.

Police commander Troy Schoenberger explained the difference in greater detail, however: "The old policy was that officers were encouraged to consider de-escalation as an option. And often this consisted of nothing more than communication. Which is important ... But going forward the comprehensive de-escalation training will involve training officers in the appropriate use of distance and cover to protect themselves and to slow down calls when they can."

Here's some responses written into the new policy:

• Placing barriers between an uncooperative subject and an officer

• Containing a threat

• Moving from a position that exposes officers to potential threats to a safer position

• Reducing exposure to a potential threat using distance, cover or concealment

• Communication from a safe position intended to gain the subject's compliance, using verbal persuasion, advisements or warnings

• Avoidance of a physical confrontation unless immediately necessary

Similar changes are being instituted around the country. Visiting Harvard Scholar Philip Atiba Goff, a founder of the Center for Policing Equity, talked to Minnesota police chiefs about the effort at a conference in April.

The changes got mixed responses from critics of the Minneapolis police.

The Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union hailed the changes, and said other departments need to adopt similar strategies. It singled out St. Paul, which has a disproportionate number of fatal shootings by police, compared to other departments.

Michelle Gross, founder of Communities United Against Police Brutality, said it remains to be seen if the changes actually happen.

"Similar policies were shown to be effective in reducing incidents of excessive force and deaths in custody when they were implemented by the Las Vegas Police Department," Gross said in an email statement. "We are hopeful that they will have a similar effect here. However, these new policies will only be effective if they are enforced."

Her organization is threatening a lawsuit against the city, seeking to put a proposal on this fall's ballot that, if approved by voters, would require police officers to personally carry professional liability insurance. City officials say they can't under state law.