Photographs by Thomas Metthe
Little Rock police cadets Cameron Vail (right) and Eboney Warren run a simulation of an investigation on Friday at the Little Rock Police Training Academy. The department reported a decrease in the number of use-of-force incidents last year.
Monday, April 16, 2018
Little Rock police recorded a nearly 8 percent drop in use-of-force incidents last year, logging the lowest number of those incidents in at least eight years.
From wristlocks to deadly shootings, use-of-force incidents encompass a wide range of physical tactics used by law enforcement. Little Rock police had 241 of those incidents last year, according to the department's annual use-of-force report. That's 20 fewer use-of-force incidents from 2016, and three fewer than 2015.
Officer-involved shootings and other types of police force have become a national conversation after the killings of unarmed black men by law enforcement in cities across the country. Nationwide, officials say, public interest in how police use force has grown.
In Little Rock, police say the department is placing more emphasis on de-escalation techniques, even though the agency has taught those tactics for years in the past. The department is doing a better job of documenting those techniques, according to Assistant Chief Hayward Finks.
"The bright light that came on is the fact that, nationally, people are starting to ask the question 'What do police do to de-escalate situations? Or do they just rush in and use force,'" he said.
It should be just as important to document what an officer did to de-escalate a situation as the force he used, Finks said. In the past, he said, the department's use-of-force form did not even have a spot to note whether the officer used de-escalation techniques.
Police documents also show last year's use-of-force total is the lowest number of incidents since 2009, the earliest year data were immediately available. That year, the department recorded 430 use-of-force incidents, according to a previous report.
In the past, Police Chief Kenton Buckner has said Tasers have played a major role in the use-of-force decline.
Police did not use force in the vast majority of interactions with the public last year, according to figures outlined in the report. Out of 188,603 citizen contacts, less than one in every 783 resulted in a use-of-force incident, the report said.
The annual report did not recommend any changes to department policy. But, it said the department's commitment to community policing "is a critical component to maintaining public trust and confidence."
Finks attributed the downturn in use-of-force incidents to de-escalation techniques and the agency putting more officers on the street through mandatory overtime, which began in August of last year.
The added officer presence, he said, acted as a deterrent to people who might choose to fight with police.
"I think that played a large part of it," he said.
Capt. Marcus Paxton, who oversees the department's Training Division, stopped short of linking last year's decrease to the added officer presence.
"Trying to actually figure out why we went down this last year ... there's no way to prove or disprove why it happened," he said.
But Paxton, who compiled the annual report, said the agency has placed a greater focus on de-escalation techniques in recent years.
Officers are trained to use force in reaction to a suspect's resistance or aggression, he said, and there are a myriad of factors that come into play in each situation. The agency uses role-playing exercises to teach de-escalation, along with a virtual reality machine that can put officers in different situations.
De-escalation techniques often rely on communication, Paxton said, such as persuading somebody or talking to someone in a calm manner.
Little Rock police also added de-escalation to its department policy on use of force last year, he said.
The policy now says officers should use de-escalation techniques "whenever possible and appropriate before resorting to force and to reduce the need for force."
Louis Dekmar, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police and police chief in LaGrange, Ga., said public interest in police force, particularly deadly force, has increased in recent years. Annual use-of-force reports, he said, have been put out by departments for many years and act as a way to assist in any changes to policies and training.
In Little Rock, 14 excessive force complaints were investigated by the Police Department's internal affairs unit last year -- a spike from the seven excessive force complaints in 2016 and the five in 2015. Of the 14 complaints, the department found there was excessive force used in only one of those incidents.
A majority of use-of-force incidents last year came from the department's three patrol divisions. With 73 incidents, the southwest patrol division logged the most incidents of force among the patrol divisions. The division accounted for 30 percent of the overall force incidents recorded last year.
Little Rock police's northwest patrol division logged 48 use-of-force incidents, making up about 20 percent of the overall incidents. The downtown patrol division reported 59 incidents, according to the report.
The report says 216 officers were involved in use-of-force incidents last year. About 43 percent of the department's sworn personnel were involved in a use-of-force incident last year, compared with the 506 sworn personnel at the end of 2017, the report said.
Little Rock police were involved in six shootings last year. In total, officers involved in five of those shootings have not faced criminal charges.
Little Rock officer Ralph Breshears, who has since retired from the department, was arrested earlier this year on one count of third-degree battery that stemmed from his role in a July shooting that wounded a man.
Breshears shot and wounded Rudy Avila outside a west Little Rock Chick-fil-A after Avila fled from officers on foot, forced a woman from her vehicle and tried to drive away.
Court records said Breshears placed the female victim in harm's way when he shot Avila. He also gave a taped statement that appeared to be "inconsistent with what can be seen on surveillance video," according to the records.
A Section on 04/16/2018
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