Facing political pressure and litigation over recent episodes of violent arrests by Palo Alto officers, the city is preparing to revise the Police Department's policy manual to ban techniques that restrict blood and air flow and to add new policies requiring de-escalation.
The revisions are part of the City Council's broad effort to institute police reforms in the aftermath of the May 25 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. They intend to bring the city closer to complying with 8 Can't Wait, a national campaign launched by the nonprofit Campaign Zero, though in some cases they stray from the project's recommendations.
One such area is the city's policy for shooting at moving vehicles. The 8 Can't Wait campaign recommends banning the practice and some police departments, including New York City's, currently prohibit it. Palo Alto's policy discourages firing shots at — or from — a moving vehicle, noting that they are "rarely effective and may involve additional considerations and risks," but stops well short of a ban. Rather it instructs officers that they shall only discharge a firearm at a moving vehicle or its occupants "when the officer reasonably believes there are no other reasonable means available to avert the imminent threat of the vehicle, or if deadly force other than the vehicle is directed at the officer or others."
The policy on shooting at vehicles emerged as a topic of debate between police brass and the city's Human Relations Commission, which in July reviewed the department's policies for consistency with 8 Can't Wait and recommended stronger language. While the commission urged the Police Department to specify in its policy that shooting at moving vehicles is "banned, unless a person poses a deadly threat," Chief Robert Jonsen said he would oppose such a description and advocated for giving officers more leeway in situations where someone may be driving into a crowd.
Palo Alto is also diverging from 8 Can't Wait by avoiding the use of what's known as the "use of force continuum," guidelines that restrict the most severe types of force to the most extreme situations. The department's revised policy offers a chart with examples of what type of force is appropriate for different types of situations. The chart generally reserves the most severe uses of force for areas in which a subject is actively resisting an officer, engaging in assault or is taking an action seen as likely to result in serious injury or death.
At the same time, the policy gives officers great discretion and expressly states that officers are "not required to use these force options based on a continuum." The policy instead authorizes them to use whatever force they deem reasonable in a given situation.
"Any evaluation of reasonableness must allow for the fact that officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force that reasonably appears necessary in a particular situation, with limited information and in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving," the policy states.
In other areas, the city's new policies largely align with 8 Can't Wait and the Human Relations Commission recommendations. The department had previously banned the use of chokeholds and carotid holds. Now, it is expanding the policy to ban any technique that is "deliberately applied for the purpose of restricting blood flow or air flow to the head or neck." The new policy applies to techniques such as lateral vascular neck restraints and chest compressions.
The new policy on restraining air flow represents a compromise between the Human Relations Commission, which wanted a stronger ban, and Jonsen, who argued that the city shouldn't unduly restrain officers from protecting themselves during physical confrontations. Jonsen warned that in some situations an officer may fall on a person and inadvertently block air flow.
By including the word "deliberately," the department's policy makes an exception for incidents where an officer cuts off air or blood flow accidentally.
The revised policy also includes a new section on de-escalation techniques, including a list of alternatives to force that officers should consider. These include "creating time and distance from the subject by establishing a reactionary gap and utilizing cover to avoid creating an immediate threat that may require the use of force." Officers are also now encouraged to "establish rapport and engage in communications with the subject"; to identify resources that can help the subject (in lieu of threats of penalties or criminal prosecutions); and to take "as much time as reasonably necessary to resolve the incident, without having to use force, if feasible."
Assistant Police Chief Andrew Binder said the department took some of these alternatives from the San Francisco Police Department manual. For others, it worked with Lexipol, a Texas-based company that works with police agencies throughout the nation to develop policies.
"The new revised policy will require officers to use other reasonably available resources and techniques when safe and feasible in deadly force applications," Binder told the City Council on Oct. 26.
The council is set to approve the new policies this Monday, Nov. 2, as part of its "consent calendar," a list of generally noncontroversial items that get approved by a single vote, with no discussion. For the City Council, the changes are also expected to be part of an iterative process. The city's plan for moving ahead with police reforms includes annual council reviews of the Police Department's policy manual, as well as reports of any changes to police policies.