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Friday, December 14 , 2018, 11:18 pm | Fair 47º


Review Assesses Lompoc Police Department’s Non-Lethal Uses of Force

Auditors recommend policy changes for stun guns and foot pursuits along with expanded reporting practices

Lompoc police Chief Pat Walsh talks about a review of his agency’s non-lethal use-of-force incidents during a City Council meeting earlier this week. Click to view larger
Lompoc police Chief Pat Walsh talks about a review of his agency’s non-lethal use-of-force incidents during a City Council meeting earlier this week. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

The Lompoc Police Department has rewritten its use-of-force policies, strengthened its rules regarding stun guns, and tweaked other guidelines for officers following an independent review of the agency’s protocols and practices for subduing suspects.

The Office of Independent Review Group, a firm made up of law enforcement accountability attorneys, conducted the audit at the request of Police Chief Pat Walsh, who obtained funding from the city’s insurance carrier.

The review, which ended with a 33-page report dated July 2017 and nearly two dozen recommendations, focused on use-of-force incidents, including deployment of stun guns and foot pursuits. They also assessed internal investigations involving misconduct.

The analysis looked at individual incidents to determine whether use of force could have been avoided even it the officers were legally justifiable in their actions, OIR representatives told the City Council this week.

“The theme of all this is what can you learn as a department from each one of these incidents, with a goal of continuously making yourselves a better agency,” the OIR Group’s Julie Ruhlin said. 

The review did not look at any officer-involved shootings since none occurred during the time of the audit, the OIR Group’s representatives said. 

“It was serendipitous that there wasn’t any, but there may come a time when we may end up wanting to look at that if we can get the carrier to pay for some kind of review,” OIR Group’s Michael Gennaco said.

Lompoc police were involved in a pair of officer-involved shootings in November 2016 and November 2017 that left suspects dead. In last year’s incident, the city paid $301,920 to settle a wrongful-death claim before a lawsuit was filed.

The goal is to reduce use-of-force incidents, while recognizing that officers sometimes can’t avoid a need to use force. 

“What we try to do is teach officer safety principles — time is on your side, distance is on your side, communication may be helpful but don’t put yourself in a situation where you then have to use force,” OIR Group’s Michael Gennaco said.

The audit report recommends better spelling out rules for use of stun guns and foot pursuits.

The report noted a number of factors officers should consider before undertaking foot pursuits in cases where they don’t believe a suspect poses a serious threat.

“It is important for officers and members of the public to remember that the decision to not engage in a foot pursuit does not equate to letting the ‘bad guy’ go,” the report said. “Rather, it is an acknowledgment that there often are safer, smarter ways to apprehend suspects than chasing them down.”

Another recommendation calls for assessment of so-called distraction blows delivered by officers trying to handcuff suspects.

“If distraction blows are to be authorized, officers should be provided more guidance on the allowable uses of force under such category. Any distraction blows policy should prohibit strikes to the head,” the report said.

A review of 41 incidents from July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2016, revealed all but five involved the use of a stun gun. 

Many of these incidents included other types of force in addition to Taser weapons – takedowns, punches, and control holds, the report noted – but it is not clear whether those would have been reported if not for a stun gun.

From the data, it appears Lompoc officers deploy stun guns more than other agencies, or use other force at a much lower rate, the report said.

“The more likely explanation, however, is that the failure to require formal written reporting of takedowns and punches skews the numbers so that Taser usage seems disproportionately high,” the report said.

The team suggested changing the reporting policy to require officers to note for administrative review all uses of physical force against a person resisting arrest. 

The lone recommendation that could cost the city involved a missing supervisory position in the department’s rank structure.

“We looked at a lot of police agencies and there are always lieutenants. It’s something that’s a glaring absence from this police department," Ruhlin said. "We think that’s a key rank.”

Walsh told the council that 80 percent of the recommendations have been implemented, including creating a longer form for officers to fill out for their use-of-force incidents.

With half of the department’s patrol officers having less than two years of experience, Walsh said, use-of-force administrative reviews will ensure younger members think about force and review incidents after the fact to assess whether different tactics should have employed.

“That way we’re learning from our (use of) force,” Walsh said. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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