Burlington Police Department wants to pass a new use of force policy. Here’s what to know.

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Burlington’s mayor and police administration are hoping the city’s police commission will adopt an updated use-of-force policy this week that includes reforms advocated following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

The policy had been drafted before the new coronavirus pandemic, but its progress stalled when city officials turned their attention to addressing health and safety concerns caused by the spread of the virus, Mayor Miro Weinberger said last week. On Friday, the city made public a 35-page draft policy that the police commission will review Tuesday evening during an emergency meeting. 

“The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers has again exposed that our country continues to be defined by deep and structural racism,” Weinberger said in a statement Friday.

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Last week, Attorney General T.J. Donovan also called on state lawmakers to pass bills that would adopt more progressive use-of-force practices and review processes for departments throughout Vermont.

Weinberger said Burlington has been committed to embracing progressive policing policies, but, “we can and must do better.” 

“By adopting this new, clear, progressive use of force policy we take an immediate and meaningful additional step to improve our practices, and to show others the path toward better American policing,” Weinberger said.

Here’s what to know about the policy that the city of Burlington hopes to adopt.

1. It includes all eight policies advocated by the #8cantwait campaign

The project created by national group Campaign Zero — which advocates data-driven policy solutions to end police violence — has gained steam on social media since the death of George Floyd. Floyd, who was black, died when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the back of his neck for almost 9 minutes while he was handcuffed and face-down on the ground. 

The eight policies that are part of the campaign are:

  • Ban choke-holds and strangle-holds.
  • Require de-escalation.
  • Require warning before shooting. 
  • Require that officers exhaust all alternatives before shooting.
  • Duty to intervene.
  • Ban shooting at motor vehicles.
  • Require the use of force continuum. 
  • Require comprehensive reporting.

All of the policies are required by the Burlington Police Department’s draft policy. 

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2. Burlington police won’t just have to warn before they shoot

When time permits, and it is safe to do so, officers must give clear instructions on how to comply with verbal commands and state clearly what consequences may occur due to a lack of compliance, according to the draft policy.

The officer must also warn the person that force may be used “unless the officer has the objectively reasonable belief that verbal warning will jeopardize the officer or another person,” the policy stated.

Officers must also document verbal commands that were given, according to the policy. 

3. The police department will not tolerate excessive force

Excessive force is defined by the policy as “force that is not objectively reasonable from the perspective of a reasonable officer in the same circumstances.” The policy states that excessive force could result in civil or criminal liability and that officers who use excessive force will be disciplined — up to and including being fired. 

Officers, whenever possible, must try to deescalate the situation before considering any type of physical force. If force is deemed necessary, officers must consider a number of factors when determining which type of force is most proportional, including: 

  • Age of the subjects or officers. 
  • Size of the subjects or officers. 
  • Skill level of the subjects or officers.
  • Number of subjects or officers. 
  • Instrumentality, such as weapons.
  • Proximity to instruments that could pose a danger.
  • Prior experience with or knowledge of the subjects. 
  • Location of the encounter.
  • Background hazards or peripheral tests.
  • Whether a use of force may have potential second-order effects, such as on bystanders.

Officers, per the policy, should only use force that is lowest level appropriate to achieve lawful objectives — controlling a situation or subject to keep the public and officer safe. The application of force must end once control has been achieved, the policy states. Burlington police officers would also be required to only use lethal force as a last resort.

“Not every situation or subject can be deescalated,” the policy states. “Conversely, officer behavior can escalate a situation. Officers should not intentionally escalate situations unnecessarily.”

4. Training that had exceeded the former policy is now formally required

The last time Burlington’s use of force policy had been updated was in 2013 by former police chief Michael Schirling. Burlington police leaders and Mayor Miro Weinberger said the department’s training on de-escalation and slowing situations down — especially in encounters with people experiencing mental illnesses — had far exceeded that 2013 policy. 

The department has been involved in de-escalation training for at least four years, including participating in a pilot program through the Police Executive Research Forum in 2016. The program focused on police tactics for ending interactions peacefully with people in mental health crisis.

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5. The new policy defines ‘excited delirium’ as a medical emergency

The policy cautions officers that medical assistance should be sought as soon as possible if they notice a subject is suffering from excited delirium — a state of agitation, intense paranoia, or disorientation that can stem from recent use of cocaine

or amphetamines, or recent abrupt discontinuation of psychiatric medications. Subjects in this state do not intend to hurt others in most cases, but may react violently to efforts to control their behavior.

Police are encouraged to try to speak to family or bystanders and look for potential indicators, including: intense paranoia; extreme agitation; severe emotional swings; disorientation about time, place, and purpose; hallucinations; incoherent speech or screaming;  grunting guttural sounds or agonal breathing; “eight ball” eyes; shedding clothing due to elevated body temperature; profuse sweating; and destructive behavior.

In these cases, police are directed to control and restrain the subject as soon as possible to get the person immediate medical attention. 

“Officers restraining a subject should be cognizant of and avoid positional asphyxia,” the policy states. “BPD prohibits prolonged face-down prone restraint.”

Contact Elizabeth Murray at 802-651-4835 or emurray@freepressmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizMurrayBFP.

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