Guest Opinion | Mohammad Tajsar: City, Police Must Commit to Community-Led Process to Establish Much-Needed Reforms

Published : Monday, June 18, 2018 | 5:28 PM

Author Mohammad Tajsar

On November 9, 2017, Pasadena police officers violently attacked 21-year-old Christopher Ballew at an Altadena Mobil Gas Station after allegedly stopping him over tinted windows and a missing front license plate. The beating—captured on a bystander’s cell phone video and subsequently revealed in videos from the officers’ dashboard and body cameras—triggered yet another nationwide outcry about excessive force perpetrated by local police officers.

Given the pervasiveness of police’s unjustified uses of force, community leaders and police reform activists have offered myriad solutions to this seemingly intractable problem: updating police trainings, imposing more rigorous disciplinary consequences for violations, aggressively prosecuting problem cops, and re-investing in community development in overpoliced areas. All these solutions demand thoughtful consideration. But in almost all cases of excessive force, the policies and procedures guiding officer actions have been shown to be woefully insufficient in restraining their ability to deploy unnecessary and deadly force. Studies show that agencies with stricter use of force policies have lower rates of killing civilians and a lower rate of officer deaths or significant injury.

Unfortunately, the Pasadena Police Department still uses an antiquated use of force policy which does not sufficiently protect members of the public or police officers from such risks. This policy, developed by a private entity named Lexipol LLP, is not subject to meaningful civilian oversight, and is designed to reduce legal liability rather than to protect members of the public and reign in police misconduct.

Following a thorough analysis, the ACLU of Southern California and the Pasadena-based Coalition for Increased Civilian Oversight of Pasadena Police delivered a letter to the City of Pasadena’s leadership on May 30 identifying six deficiencies in this policy which increase the likelihood that Pasadena residents may again be subjected to the kind of violence that Mr. Ballew suffered.

For instance, Pasadena’s use of force policy does not require that police officers use widely established “de-escalation” techniques designed to limit the temperature of encounters between police and members of the public. Although police departments in San Francisco, Seattle, Camden, and Chicago have mandated the use of such techniques, Pasadena does not.

Nor does Pasadena require police officers exhaust alternatives to using force when interacting with an individual. The officers who beat Mr. Ballew resorted to violence first, even brandishing a gun at one point in the interaction, over a minor traffic stop. Had their Department required that the officers use alternative means to engaging Mr. Ballew, he might have left the scene without a black eye and a broken leg.

The ACLU’s letter also highlights other areas of needed reform, including requiring that the department mandate officers use force only proportionally to the seriousness of the offense, provide more guidance to officers about when particular uses of force may be deployed, and prohibit particularly dangerous tactics shown to be unreasonable and deadly (like chokeholds (carotid holds), firing warning shots, and shooting at moving vehicles).

With these recommendations in hand, the City of Pasadena and the leadership of the Police Department must now commit to an honest and community-led process for establishing the much-needed reforms necessary to prevent another beating. Making the changes suggested in the ACLU letter is a good first step. More must be done, including convening an independent process where members of community groups and City leadership sit together to craft binding, and holistic, solutions to the problems that exist within the Department. The results of this process should be public and binding, and should include public-facing policies that prioritize public safety, rather than continue to use those developed by an unaccountable private company. Taking these steps will go a long way to making sure that Mr. Ballew’s injuries will not have been suffered in vain.

 

Mohammad Tajsar is a Staff Attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Southern California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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