Nevada County law enforcement speaks out on what’s acceptable use of force
Special to the Sierra Sun
In the wake of George Floyd’s May 25 death while in the custody of Minneapolis police, protests have swept the globe. And with those protests have come a number of efforts to reform law enforcement and prevent excessive use of force.
Some have advocated defunding police departments and redirecting funding to social programs. Earlier this week, congressional Democrats introduced The Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which would ban chokeholds, establish a national database to track police misconduct and prohibit certain no-knock warrants, among other initiatives.
Campaign Zero, an organization dedicated to ending police violence in America, made headlines early on with its 8 Can’t Wait campaign that urged the immediate adoption of eight policies: Banning chokeholds and strangleholds; requiring de-escalation; requiring a warning before shooting; requiring that all alternatives be exhausted before shooting; requiring officers to intervene when excessive force is being used; banning shooting at moving vehicles; establishing a use-of-force continuum; and requiring comprehensive reporting.
Local law enforcement entities were quick to denounce Floyd’s death — but their response has not ended there. Nevada City Police Chief Chad Ellis, Grass Valley Police Chief Alex Gammelgard and Nevada County Sheriff Shannan Moon all are on board with a task force on racism still in the formation stage, with participants including Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital, the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools and Jamal Walker of Creating Communities Beyond Bias.
The task force issued a statement Tuesday, saying it’s started “the process of creating systemic change by better understanding the lived experience of people of color in Nevada County.”
“I just want the community to know the Grass Valley Police Department wants to listen to the people who can help inform us of how we can do better,” Gammelgard said. “By us making policy changes without having that conversation or listening, is not the most effective way to make meaningful progress.”
STATE LAWS PASSED LAST YEAR
All three law enforcement leaders are reviewing their own policies dealing with use of force. Many of the “8 Can’t Wait” proposals already are mandated in California, they note.
“One of the big things to point out in California, that is unique, is that we have SB 230,” Gammelgard said.
That Senate bill, signed into law last fall, mandates law enforcement agencies to establish policy guidelines to use deadly force only when “necessary.” It also establishes uniform use-of-force training programs: requires officers be trained on de-escalation techniques, crisis intervention tactics and alternatives to force, as well as when deadly force can be employed; and makes use-of-force policies and procedures accessible to the public.
Gammelgard also cited the passage of Assembly Bill 302, which redefines the circumstances under which the use of lethal force by a peace officer is considered justifiable.
Ellis noted many of the national recommendations have been in place for a while in California.
“With all the different things that are being requested, California is probably the most forward thinking and proactive when it comes to that stuff,” he said. “De-escalation has been in our wheelhouse for a couple of years.”
The laws signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year weren’t easy for law enforcement to get behind, Moon acknowledged.
“Now we’re like, wow, why can’t the rest of the country get behind this?” she said. “It’s easy to wait for someone else to lead. Here in California, this was a difficult conversation to have.”
With AB 302, Moon said, a lot of time was spent dissecting one word — “necessity.”
“What does that mean? It actually documents what already existed in case law,” she said. “So now, there is no ambiguity, and that’s important. … The guidelines, they need to be black and white.”
A gray area means there is discretion, which can lead to a potential for abuse, Moon said. The law clarified what is reasonable under the totality of circumstances, she explained.
“To have something codified, it protects everybody,” Moon said. “It identifies, right up front, the sanctity of human life.”
Carotid hold moratorium
Banning chokeholds isn’t applicable here because police departments use a carotid control hold, Gammelgard said. That cuts off the blood flow to the brain, causing unconsciousness.
“What happened in Minnesota would never be approved,” Moon said.
“What people are calling chokeholds or neck holds is not a tactic we are trained in,” Moon explained. “We are trained in the carotid restraint, which is a technique used to render someone unconscious, so it is a higher level of force, because of the risk in not applying it correctly. It also takes consistent training to be able to properly apply it.”
Both Gammelgard and Moon said Newsom has directed the California Peace Officer Standards and Training to discontinue training and certifying the carotid control hold. Legislation in California and at the federal level is currently being considered to make the carotid control hold illegal for use by peace officers, and there will likely soon be laws placing restrictions or a prohibition on the practice.
On Thursday, Gammelgard issued a directive to his staff placing a moratorium on the practice, until there are more specific state or federal laws passed regarding the use of the technique. In the memo, however, Gammelgard said the hold could be allowed “if immediately necessary in defense of human life.”
Moon said she has pulled the hold from her Use of Force Policy, adding, “So in effect, it is not authorized by my staff.”
Moon noted the state Board of State and Community Corrections, which regulates correctional staff training, also pulled the carotid restraint training.
RECOMMENDATIONS SPAN GAMUT
Not all of the Campaign Zero recommendations seem practical to local law enforcement, in particular a ban on shooting at vehicles.
“An outright prohibition in all circumstances does not account for situations where the driver of a vehicle may be threatening or actually causing death or great bodily injury to one or many people,” Gammelgard said. “It’s possible that shooting at that driver might be a method of last resort that may save lives.”
Ellis agreed, using the crowds of Victorian Christmas in a hypothetical scenario.
“If you got a report someone wanted to plow into the crowd, would you shoot to stop the threat and save lives?” he said. “That would be an appropriate use of force.”
But Gammelgard said he could “unequivocally get behind” a recommendation on officers’ duty to intervene, saying, “I cannot think of an example where a duty to intercede shouldn’t apply.”
Part of the duty to intervene comes with recognizing the sanctity of life, Moon said. It’s vital, she added, that in chaotic situations where adrenaline is flowing that officers know they are working with others who also value the sanctity of life.
“We’re all there to make sure everyone is protected, to make sure everyone gets home safe — everyone,” Moon said. “That’s the mantra we need to get to, to make things change for the better.”
Moon said she wanted to stress that her agency is looking at all its policies and training, “to see what we can do as an agency to be better in providing our services.”
As part of that, Moon said, when she took over as sheriff she made staffing and training a top priority.
“Continuing to have a conversation is how we progress,” she said. “Even here (in this small community) it matters, how … we talk about an extremely tragic event and say, there’s a lot of work to be done.”
There’s always room for growth, both Gammelgard and Ellis agreed.
“I think it’s a good thing, to make people look at what we’re doing, and if we can do it better,” Ellis said.
“I think we have to take a hard look at the use of force in American policing and somehow get to a point where we can all agree on what they should look like, and uphold the standards we have written — or should have written,” Gammelgard said. “I do think it’s dangerous to make sweeping, blanket reform without a strong understanding from all sides about the implications, and where we want to be as a society and the legitimacy of policing in the future. … If the culture doesn’t align with policy, then we’re not in a better position than we were before. (The actions) we are seeing that shock our conscience are things that are outside policy.
“How do we get to a policy of speaking up and treating each individual with dignity and the humanity they deserve — including officers? We’re all human,” he added.
Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at email@example.com.
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