West St. Paul Police Chief Brian Sturgeon

West St. Paul Reviews Police Use of Force Policy

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On Tuesday, June 16 the West St. Paul Public Safety Committee reviewed the police department’s Use of Force policy at the direction of City Council. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and nationwide protests, police conduct and reform have been a central focus.

This first step in a larger conversation included Police Chief Brian Sturgeon explaining the policy and answering questions from committee members Anthony Fernandez, Wendy Berry, and Dick Vitelli. City Manager Ryan Schroeder, City Attorney Kori Land, and Mayor Dave Napier were also in attendance at West St. Paul’s first in-person public meeting since the pandemic began (Vitelli attended virtually). The meeting was broadcast live and is available to watch online. You can review the Use of Force policy in the agenda packet.

Notes on Policing in West St. Paul

While the Public Safety Committee focused on the Use of Force policy, we’re highlighting a number of issues and questions related to policing that came up in the meeting.

  • Police reaction to George Floyd: “Every one of our officers is angry and shocked and upset,” Sturgeon said. “It’s very frustrating for our officers to see that happen, because we’ve been making some great strides and then this happens and it pushes us all back. It’s heartbreaking.”
  • Constantly updated: The Use of Force policy is a living, breathing document that’s updated constantly with new state and federal guidelines, as well as best practices from court decisions based on the review of lawyers and risk managers. Changes are reviewed by Sturgeon, sometimes modified, and then changes are sent out to all police staff who must review and sign off an acknowledgement.
  • Example of a change: In responding to suicidal individuals, police used to force entry and send the person to the hospital. In the last two years that’s changed. Now if there’s no danger to the community, the police won’t force their way in. They’ll try to make contact and bring in crisis response, but they no longer force a confrontation that often ended in deadly force.
  • Past incidents: (The Public Safety meeting didn’t get into details on past incidents, so these come from further conversations with Chief Sturgeon.)
    • The most recent lawsuit against West St. Paul over use of force came back in 2001. During the meeting, Sturgeon noted it was a threatened use of force and the officer is no longer with the department. However, the incident involved officers punching a man in handcuffs—not the mere threat.
    • The most recent use of force complaint came in 2010 over being forced into the backseat of a squad car. The complaint was determined to be unfounded based on squad car video and bystander statements.
    • Going back to 1989, West St. Paul police officers have fired shots on only two occasions—one came in the early 1990s when shots were fired at an officer who returned fire and the person ultimately killed themselves; the second came in 2007 when bank robbers held a police officer hostage and police fired and killed the robber (these are incidents of shots fired at people; don’t forget the bear in 2014). Sturgeon notes there have been many times when force would have been justified over the years, but officers opted not to use force.
  • Current incidents: While not stated during the committee meeting, the West St. Paul Police Department has actually used force 44 43 times so far in 2020. Most of those incidents were related to the recent spat of looting and involved officers pointing a firearm or tazer but not firing. As we got the data from Chief Sturgeon, we actually had more incidents in the first quarter and not from the recent looting. For context, West St. Paul police have had 12,350 service calls so far in 2020, so use of force has happened in 0.35% of cases. (We’re looking into numbers for previous years but don’t have that data yet.) The number of use of force cases are relatively stable over the last two and half years—76 cases in 2019, 94 in 2018, and with 43 so far in 2020, we’re about in line with those previous numbers.
  • Reviewing use of force: Anytime an officer uses force, it’s reviewed at least four times. It can often result in changes to training or coaching an officer. “It’s kind of silly, but when you use force, it’s a lot of paperwork that you have to do, and cops really don’t like to do paperwork,” Sturgeon said. “I’m being serious, they don’t like using force. Unfortunately, sometimes force has to be used.”
    • Update (June 29, 2020): For instances of use of force that result in great bodily harm or death, there is a review of the incident by a committee that includes a member of the public. Since that policy was implemented, that committee and review process has never been necessary.
  • Different than Minneapolis: Sturgeon notes one major difference between our use of force policy and Minneapolis is our duty to intercede requirement. (Minneapolis has a duty to intercede policy, but it’s unclear what the differences are.) Sturgeon notes that he’s seen officers intercede on occasion, usually when interacting with other departments. He notes doing it himself early in his career.
  • Banned holds: Choke holds and carotid holds are banned in West St. Paul.
  • Deescalation: “We were teaching deescalation techniques before most people heard about deescalation,” Sturgeon said.
  • Cameras: West St. Paul fully implemented body cameras at the beginning of 2020. All squad cars have front-facing cameras and now have backseat cameras as well. The cameras have helped in providing evidence and have also verified what happened when complaints are made, often proving that an officer acted properly.
  • Generational shift: Sturgeon noted a generational shift in training. “When I came on, it was do your job—ethically and legally—and don’t ask questions,” Sturgeon said. “Millennials ask more questions.” That’s shifted training from just explaining how to do something to also explaining why doing it that way is important. Sturgeon noted there’s also more empathy and caring among officers in the last 20 years. “When I first started we couldn’t do 200 community events like we do now,” Sturgeon said. Officers want to do community engagement now when 20 years ago they didn’t.
  • Militaristic training: Sturgeon expressed his frustration with the military style of many police academies, and that’s why West St. Paul doesn’t use that approach. West St. Paul uses a field training approach that takes a minimum of 14 weeks.
  • Busiest department: Sturgeon noted that West St. Paul is one of the busiest departments in the metro.
  • Hiring process: The hiring process West St. Paul uses for police officers is very involved. It can often take eight months. The last step in the process involves a background check and psychological exam—half of applicants fail the background check and 40% fail the psych exam.
  • Fewer applicants: The police department received 100 applicants for their last opening, when they used to get 300. However, that’s a lot more than other departments are getting—some in Dakota County have received none and had to keep posting the position.
  • Why fewer applicants: “It’s a tough time to go into criminal justice,” Sturgeon said. He’s also asked why we can’t get more Black officers—they don’t apply. “Do you think African Americans want to go into law enforcement right now? No.” Sturgeon points to a lot of culture and outreach efforts to increase the number and diversity of applicants.
  • More gear: Police officers are carrying about 30 pounds of gear, double what they did 20 or 30 years ago. That’s causing some back problems, and Sturgeon is looking into a vest to shift some of the weight and reduce that problem. The department will be rolling out a new vest soon and will inform the community about the new look. Sturgeon emphasizes that the vests look professional and not militaristic.
  • Citizen’s Academy: West St. Paul residents can get a taste of what police training is like through the Citizen’s Academy (Sturgeon hopes to bring the program back, though that plan has been delayed thanks to COVID-19). Council Member Berry chimed in, “I’d make a terrible cop,” noting how high her adrenaline spiked during the scenario-based training exercises. “We want our officers to get the adrenaline going, because that will happen in the real world,” Sturgeon explained.
  • Police unions: A common question that comes up in police brutality cases is the power of police unions to protect officers despite complaints and bad behavior. Unlike Minneapolis and St. Paul, West St. Paul officers belong to the state-wide Law Enforcement Labor Services union, which focuses more on employment issues like salary and time off and don’t dictate how the job is done. The union does bring arbitration and mediation to complaints, which can result in overturning a decision to fire an officer. It’s also worth noting that only the city manager has the power to fire an officer (or any city employee).
  • Mental health: The West St. Paul Police Department is a nationwide model for mental health. “It’s innovative, different, and good for our officers and the community,” Sturgeon said. He also notes that the program came from the officers themselves.
  • Transparency: Sturgeon is working to make more police policies available to the public, though there are logistical challenges. “We want to do it,” Sturgeon said. “We’re open to input.”
  • Police living in West St. Paul: All things being equal, Sturgeon said he’d love to hire local residents, but requiring officers to live in West St. Paul is a non-starter for Sturgeon. “If that was a requirement, we’d have some bad apples in our department,” Sturgeon said, pointing to the recruitment challenges and the size of our city. He notes that many officers did grow up here or live nearby. There’s nothing stopping the city from offering a relocation bonus to officers. Council Member Fernandez notes potential downsides of living where you police—safety issues for family, wanting to separate work and home, etc.
  • Update (June 29, 2020): Use of force on fleeing suspect: With the high profile shooting of Rayshard Brooks in the back in Atlanta, and other similar cases, I asked Chief Sturgeon about shooting fleeing suspects. “There’s no justification for shooting in the back, unless it fits state statute,” Sturgeon said. State statute only allows deadly force in that instance if a suspect has just committed ‘great bodily harm’ or killed someone and it’s reasonable to assume they’ll do it again. In the last two years the Use of Force policy has even changed to disallow using a tazer on a fleeing suspect.

For more on policing in West St. Paul, read our interview with Police Chief Brian Sturgeon.

Update (June 24, 2020): City Council discussed this review at their June 22 meeting, which included some more details about what officers are doing and conversation around policing.

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