When Peace Officers Use Their Guns

Use-of-Force Policies Need Reform in Santa Barbara

In her comments to the Santa Barbara City Council on October 3, Chief Lori Luhnow admitted the necessity of modernizing Santa Barbara Police Department’s Use of Force Policy. These policies lay out the ways in which police officers are allowed to use violence while carrying out their duties. She estimated that the department will produce a revised policy by the end of the year. This is an opportunity to join other progressive cities by adopting community vetted and evidence based policy.

We cannot allow this opportunity to slip past. In February, here in Santa Barbara, Bryan Carreno was killed by Sheriff’s Office deputies after his family — worried about his mental health — called 9-1-1 for assistance. A few hours later deputies shot him several times. Santa Barbara is not exempt from police violence. It happens here, too.

While it was deputies of the Sheriff’s Office who killed Carreno, there is no reason to believe things would have gone differently had the SBPD responded instead. Officers would have followed their policy, just as the deputies did. And SBPD’s current Use of Force Policy is virtually identical to that of the Sheriff’s Office. The Use of Force policies active in our community must be improved.

Unfortunately, SBPD has failed to seek input from the most directly affected stakeholders during their reform process, despite their stated belief in the importance of doing so. It is therefore no surprise that the reforms Chief Luhnow hinted at in her comments would not be enough to bring SBPD’s policy into line with either the needs of our community or recognized best practices in policing.

In discussions with Equity for Santa Barbara, SBPD representatives expressed their intention to involve all community members in reform. They also acknowledged the importance of reaching out to groups who traditionally have been excluded from conversations about police violence. But SBPD has neither conducted this outreach nor enabled meaningful community involvement.

As Obama’s highly regarded Task Force on 21st Century Policing summarizes: “People are more likely to obey the law when they believe that those who are enforcing it have authority that is perceived as legitimate … law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to impose control on the community.” By keeping stakeholders out of the reform process, SBPD undermines its legitimacy.

Obama’s Task Force also offers guidelines for best-practices in Use of Force Policy. The Police Executive Research Forum produced a report with similar recommendations, informed by practical experience in policing. And researchers and activists at Campaign Zero demonstrated that communities that enforced certain limitations on use of force saw significantly fewer police killings. The overwhelming consensus which has emerged provides a common standard of best practices in Use of Force policies. In our community, the policies currently used fail to live up to this common standard in numerous ways. They must be thoroughly updated.

Anything less than comprehensive reform risks unnecessary violence, gambling with the lives of the vulnerable among us. In conversations with stakeholders, we found that many people shared concerns about SBPD’s current policy. Implementation of 11 specific, well-tested policy changes as a comprehensive package would address these shared concerns. All of these policy recommendations would positively impact the safety of members of our community, are supported by the common core of best-practice recommendations, and have been successfully implemented in other communities. We have forwarded these community suggestions to Chief Luhnow, but she has stated her support for only one.

In her comments on October 3, the chief spoke of the department’s commitment to developing and maintaining a culture of de-escalation. She assured City Council that SBPD officers would always attempt to cool off heated situations before they resorted to violence. Affected stakeholders have made clear their desire that this unofficial culture be solidified and transformed into official policy, and major research and advocacy groups strongly support this policy suggestion.

Nevertheless, Chief Luhnow has not indicated any intention to include de-escalation in the revised policy SBPD expects to produce by the end of the year. She has similarly failed to support a prohibition on shooting at moving vehicles, a requirement that other options be exhausted before resorting to deadly force, and a requirement that officers render prompt first aid — to name just a few examples.

Research by police executives, academics, and activists shows a consensus that reform must be comprehensive in order to protect the safety of all, and it must be legitimized by deep community involvement. SBPD’s current reform falls short in both ways.

We do not need to accept inadequate reform. If you are concerned about police use of force, visit us at facebook.com/EquityforSB and sign our petition. Contact SBPD and City Council to demand that Use of Force Policy reform is done right.


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