On Tuesday, City Council received a presentation on the San Marcos Police Department’s use of force policy.
Interim Police Chief Bob Klett provided Council an overview of the policy highlighting the items focused on by “8 Can’t Wait Initiative.”
The initiative aims to address the following items:
- Ban Choke and Strangle Holds
- Require de-escalation training
- Require warning before shooting
- Exhaust all other means before shooting
- Establish a duty to intervene in instances of excessive force
- Ban practice of shooting at moving vehicles
- Require a use of force continuum
- Require comprehensive use of force reporting
Klett provided Council with an overview of the department’s hiring policy, which includes a written exam for cognitive skills, reading comprehension, and memory skills, and candidate fitness.
Recruits are subject to an extensive personal history statement as well as a polygraph test to identify key traits such as integrity, Klett said.
When a recruit receives an initial offer of employment, they are given a psychological evaluation by an independent psychologist. They receive additional training at a mini-academy to learn San Marcos PD’s standards and expectations.
“It’s really important that they understand they’ve got to comply with what our standards are,” Klett said. “So that they understand their job is in jeopardy if they can’t do what we need them to do.”
Klett said SMPD Policy’s limitations on force has recently been changed based on the changes to the Texas Police Association’s standards.
According to Klett, the use of chokeholds or strangleholds is “only when deadly force” is authorized; once an officer has the suspect under control, they are required to release and provide immediate medical attention if necessary.
The department has been distributing regular emails that respiratory restraints and knees on necks are not allowed.
“In my personal experience, 30 years in law enforce, I have never seen a tactic taught of a knee being applied to the neck,” Klett said. “Previously, the San Marcos Police Department did allow some neck restraints; we found them to be very useful; however, seldom used.”
The state mandates de-escalation training, and members of the department receive training throughout their careers.
SMPD 6.1 Response to Resistance and Aggression requires officers to warn suspects or individuals of interest and state their intent to shoot before firearms are discharged.
Klett said there are real-world implications as deadly force encounters often involve split-second decisions; the human brain cannot speak and act at the same time.
He gave Council the example of Officers Kenneth Copeland and Justin Putnam; both officers were attacked so quickly they did not have time to issue any warnings or respond to save their own lives.
According to Klett, deadly force is considered a last resort, and San Marcos Police officers are trained to utilize any other options available.
“Officers must articulate any level of force they use,” he said, “Which is a higher standard than of course continuum.”
Any employee of SMPD is duty-bound to intervene if they observe an excessive use of force by another employee or officer.
The policy was recently changed to report the incident to a supervisor.
Klett said the expectation has always existed within the department, but adding it to the policy makes it stronger.
“I think the benefit of working with a department our sizes is officers are not a number here,” he said. “They have relationships that exist with each other, with our community, and that trust is maintained throughout the organization, and we hold each other accountable.”
SMPD’s policy dictates under Deadly Force Restrictions that officers shall not fire at a moving vehicle unless the continued operation of the vehicle presents an imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury to any person.
Klett noted that shooting at moving vehicles were extremely rare situation but instances like the 2018 SXSW festival in Austin where an individual “plowed through a crowd.”
The use of force Continuum is not in line with the most recent, relevant case law, Graham V. Connor, and is not considered among the best practices, according to Klett.
SMPD has adapted to the more current minimum reasonable and necessary standard.
“We moved to this standard several years ago because it’s actually more restrictive,” Klett said, “In that, an officer must articulate why they use that specific force, and not just because it is allowed.”
The San Marcos Police Department’s Use of Force reporting policy has been in place for nearly 20 years.
Klett said all use of force reports are reviewed by the officer’s supervisor and by a member of the administration to identify anomalies or patterns.
The SMPD uses the software IaPro and early warning capacity to track for anomalies or patterns as well.
Klett said the department compiles and submits annual reports to the Council, which they intend to begin posting online for transparency.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office requires law enforcement agencies to report administrative deaths and shootings.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a voluntary program in January 2019 that allows agencies to report the same data the TX AG’s office collects voluntarily: results in the death or serious bodily injury of a person when law enforcement in the absence of death or serious injury discharges a firearm at or in the direction of a person.
Klett said SMPD had been voluntarily participating in the FBI program since it began last year.
During his presentation, Klett provided Council with other considerations outside the 8 Can’t Wait initiative item, including “No Knock” entries, which recent policy changes were made to match the department’s practice of avoiding no-knock entry.
The San Marcos Police Department is recommending the creation of an ad-hoc committee comprised of community members nominated by Council focused on the review use of force policies.
The charge of the committee would be to review the policy and make recommendations to the Chief’s Advisory Panel via a written report and open presentation.
Klett said the department would provide the committee with an initial class on the TPCA best practices program and key case law issues that drive building a Use of Force Policy.
The Chief’s Advisory Panel provides a flow of information to the department and the public on internal and external issues.
“The participation of these volunteers is just very much appreciated and welcome,” Klett said. “After checking with several comparable agencies, it appears we are the only agency that has a standing chief’s advisory panel, so I’m proud that’s something we’ve been doing for some time now.”
Councilmember Maxfield Baker said he applauded the presentation and a lot of the clarifying questions the police department provided as well as the public outreach they’ve been doing.
“I think the 8 Can’t Wait is a great place for us to start and assure our community that we’re looking at these things,” Baker said. “But all of that is a part of the bigger piece of the campaign zero platform that is tied to 8 can’t wait. We’re starting here, and we’re going to continue this conversation.”