For example, the report recommends a ban on police shooting at moving vehicles unless the suspect is using deadly force from the vehicle— a move which greatly reduced the deaths of both suspects and officers in New York City after it was implemented in 1972. Cities like Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. have since adopted similar policies.
In crafting the original report, PERF consulted with hundreds of police chiefs over the course of two years, and looked at countless case studies and reports to put together their findings and then their training program.
PERF also consulted with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York— who was at that time the chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities— as well as with Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who lent his support in helping the group's training programs for the Chicago Police Department.
Wexler said Cardinal Dolan was particularly supportive of the language of “sanctity of life” in the report. Over the years, he said, “I've gotten some really wonderful feedback about the sanctity of human life.”
The report emphasized that most officers involved in controversial use-of-force incidents should not be faulted, because their actions reflected the training they received.
One of the biggest problems in changing the culture of policing is the patchwork of 18,000 police departments all across the country, each with its own training for officers.
“There are no national guidelines on de-escalation,” Wexler said.
“When people would say, ‘We want to de-escalate this situation,’ that term hadn't been defined. What we did is we operationalized that term and we now teach it.”
When PERF first released its guidelines in March 2016, they were met with harsh criticism from both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Fraternal Order of Police.
“We cannot reasonably expect law enforcement officers to walk away from potentially dangerous situations and individuals in the hope that those situations resolve themselves without further harm being done,” the organizations said at the time in a joint response to PERF’s initial report.
Wexler said today, after four years, the report’s recommendations are “no longer controversial.”
“Many of the larger agencies have adopted them. The number one guideline, the sanctity of human life guideline, has been embraced by many departments,” he said.
Many U.S. police departments that have already incorporated de-escalation techniques into their training have seen positive results.
The report points to the Seattle police department, whose officers interact with some 10,000 people a year with mental illness and, thanks to their training, very rarely have to resort to force of any kind.
Seattle has a large number of people experiencing homelessness, and Wexler said training that helps officers understand their situation can help to avoid fatal conflicts.
For example, some homeless people sleep with a knife for protection, he said. So if an officer confronts them, their first reaction may be to go for their knife— not to attack the officer, but as a measure of self-defense.
“In those kinds of situations, we ask the police to step back, begin communicating, get cover, get yourself safe. We don't want any police officers to get hurt,” he said.
In addition, it recommends a prohibition on deadly force on suspects who pose a danger only to themselves; that departments document use of force incidents and report them to the public; and that departments make de-escalation a core theme of their training programs.
Wexler said he hopes police departments will use the various videos from the George Floyd incident to assess what went wrong and determine how such an incident can be prevented in future.
“This unfortunate video in Minneapolis will be a ‘training video,’ in the sense that they will ask officers to look at [the video], and then say, ‘Pick this apart. Tell me what happened here. Tell me what should have happened.’ That's what's different today— there's a sense that we need to learn from these situations,” he said.