Deadly-Force Incidents

ARTICLE | Sep 25, 2014

Painful Stories, Thoughtful Observations

In introducing the “Police and Community Relations” session at ICMA’s annual conference, Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee, ICMA-CM, acknowledged the challenges that Ferguson, Missouri, has faced in the aftermath of the August 9, 2014, fatal police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old African American man.

Carlee posed the pressing question: What do managers need to be doing right now in their own jurisdictions to address not only deadly-force incidents but also, more broadly, the issues associated with police–citizen relationships.

The statistics Carlee cited are unsettling. According to FBI numbers, roughly 400 police homicides have occurred every year for the five years from 2008 to 2012. According to, 22 unarmed African Americans have been killed by police since 2000, while Mother Jones reported at least four shootings of unarmed African American men by police in the last few months.

A recent YouGov poll shows that whites and African Americans perceive the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, police differently: 40 percent of white respondents think the shooting was an isolated incident, and only 35 percent see it as part of a broader pattern. Conversely, only 6 percent of African Americans think it’s an isolated incident, while 76 percent see it as part of a broader pattern.

The panelists of the session each had direct experience with deadly-force incidents:

  • Milton Dohoney, ICMA-CM, currently assistant city manager in Phoenix, Arizona, and previously city manager of Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Tom Bonfield, city manager, Durham, North Carolina
  • Veronica Ferguson, county administrator, Sonoma, California
  • Kerr Putney, deputy police chief of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina.

The panelists and members of the audience offered their observations about the circumstances surrounding deadly-force incidents and the long-term implications:

Tragedies Abound

Ferguson doesn’t have a monopoly on tragedy:

  • After the suicide of a youth who shot himself while in the back of a police car, civic unrest ensued in Durham, North Carolina. The city council subsequently asked for an investigation into police practices, and the city is currently responding to the 35 recommendations stemming from the investigation.
  • In Sonoma, California, on October 22, 2013, a 13-year-old Hispanic boy carrying a toy assault gun was shot and killed by police. In line with standard protocol, the incident was investigated by the neighboring (Santa Rosa) police department. Members of the community have worked together ever since to honor the 13-year-old, but when the district attorney decided not to file charges and the deputy was put back in the field, the community was incensed. While the community has been committed to keeping everything peaceful, questions remain about how to move the community forward.
  • A student in the audience voiced the opinion that even though we may not hear about them, deadly-force incidents against unarmed civilians happen in most communities, in that so many misunderstandings exist among the police and diverse constituents.
In the Aftermath

The panelists and audience participants stressed the importance of being prepared for the worst-case scenario:

  • Jurisdictions need to examine the reported incidents and strategically plan what to do in the aftermath of something similar. In St. Petersburg, Florida, community policing became the standard and included such educational efforts as firearms simulations for citizens.
  • Every community needs to review its policing procedures, practices, and policies to ensure that biases against any group are not being inadvertently or blatantly perpetuated. Managers need to examine and understand the context in which the shooting of unarmed African American children, teenagers, and young adults can occur and where tensions can be escalating.
  • One participant asked how you go about getting your community and your elected officials to accept the analysis of the police department by an independent third party. And it was observed that sometimes that analysis is not an independent investigation but rather a review of a review. A panelist noted that some counties have independent sheriffs who are not under the manager’s purview. In any case, the manager has to weigh whether an independent analysis is necessary and whether it will help restore trust.
Working with Police

Managers need to establish solid relationships with their police departments as much as managers and the police need to build solid relationships with the community.

  • A North Carolina manager told the story of hiring the chief of police and spending the first six months talking about policing philosophy. Their intent was to help drive a culture change that included a change to community policing. It also included letting young people know what their rights are; stopping arbitrary frisk and arrest; and planning to acquire police body cameras that will protect everyone. In line with their philosophy, they agreed that their community’s police vehicle should look like an EMS vehicle and not like a tank. The manager also recommended bringing together community social services organizations to see show they can help. A special challenge, she noted, is to make things better for the people for whom a life of crime has been working.
  • As managers, you need to know the data of your community to determine whether the relationship between the police and the community needs to change, and what it will take to make changes.
  • With 9-11, the police force became everyone’s homeland security. The question was raised, can there be a balance of community policing and a militarized police force?
  • The deputy police chief on the panel pointed out that police have to hold themselves to a higher standard than simply the legal standard; the next test is the moral and ethical standard.
  • The police department builds brand equity. Without that, grounds for trust and understanding diminish.
  • One participant noted that in her community, the police department is dispatched to incidents involving the mentally ill. That begs the question, how do those kinds of calls impact police training, and are the police the right group to respond to those kinds of calls.
Setting Communication Protocols

All the players need to know their roles in a variety of circumstances following an incident.

  • Working with the police and elected officials, managers need to help establish the communication protocols. How soon after an incident will a press conference be held? Is “no comment” ever an acceptable response? Some communicate immediately and follow up with more information within five days. Others say all they know from the get-go as long as it won’t hurt the investigation; the philosophy here is to communicate all they can as soon as they can. Some have hired a social media consultant since all news instantly goes viral. One participant cautioned that the media will want you to speculate, but it’s your responsibility to say only what you know.
  • In Santa Rosa, a protocol was in place to communicate several times a day, and that constant stream of information sharing had a calming effect.
  • Managers need to be involved in the community dialogue. If you’re open and not defensive, a panelist noted, you will get the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, it takes bold leadership from the police chief to invite examination.
Discovering Many Layers

Investigating why and how a deadly-force incident has occurred typically reveals complex circumstances.

  • The Santa Rosa/Sonoma incident (involving a 13-year-old carrying a toy gun who was killed by a policeman) proved to be more than just a police issue. Roughly 800 teenagers showed up with toy weapons in protest; though the demonstration was peaceful, it was also unnerving for those responsible for public safety. The investigation of the incident has unearthed sentiments stemming from more than 200 years of discrimination; these underlying complex and multiple issues erupt in volatile situations. In listening to the community, they found that people didn’t feel included because of their economic status and race. The demonstration presented new issues for the community to deal with, including needing ongoing resources to be available to talk and listen to the teenagers.
Educating Yourself and the Public

The more managers understand their communities and police policies, the easier it is to establish relationships and agree on protocols.

  • Managers need to learn how police officers are trained, what the policy is on use of force, when to draw a gun, when to use a taser, and so on—that is, to get a full understanding of what is behind the level of force being used.
  • One session participant wanted to be sure managers realize that the U.S. Department of Justice has a free community relations service that will teach communities how to conduct community resolution.
  • Some portion of the effort can be as simple as the police reaching out to children and teenagers before any incident occurs. Managers may need a reminder that they have a responsibility to know what’s going on in the entire community, to really know all of the community. It was noted that if you have a value system that values some groups less than others, you will have a problem.
  • Part of the community relations effort has to include educating citizens about safety measures that are for the protection of police officers, especially since what they do to protect themselves may seem excessive to someone unfamiliar with a situation and its protocols.
Takeaway Lessons

In a wrap-up of the session, Carlee asked panelists to offer one lesson stemming from their experience in a community in which a deadly-force incident resulted in the death of an unarmed resident. Here are their responses:

  • We need more open communication from the start, with no veils over the facts.
  • If you don’t begin by expressing remorse over the death, you immediately damage the potential relationship.
  • Build the relationships and your knowledge and understanding of all dimensions of the community before any incident occurs; learn what kind of policing your community needs.
  • Develop a deeper understanding of how policies develop and evolve.
  • Prepare elected officials to speak to the media.
  • The city manager can provide context for elected officials, which helps ensure that everyone is on the same page and has a shared understanding and knowledge.

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