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OC Sheriff’s Department use-of force policies endanger public, deputies, watchdog report says

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s rules for using force are generally unclear, confusing, incorrect and without empathy, endangering deputies and the public alike, according to a new audit by the county’s law enforcement watchdog.

The reformed Office of Independent Review, in its first report, also criticized department instructors for making troubling and biased statements during training sessions that appeared to endorse violence. Moreover, the report said uses of force that were found to be out-of-policy were not referred to internal affairs for investigation.

The lack of investigation, statements endorsing violence and vague policies on such things as “de-escalation” come at a time when police agencies throughout the nation are rewriting their rules to encourage use of less-deadly force or none at all because of the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, among other deaths.

“We found that OCSD policies omit essential information in critical areas, including in its treatment of de-escalation and the use of deadly force,” said the report authored by OIR Executive Director Sergio Perez and Investigations Manager T. Jack Morse. “OCSD has no dedicated de-escalation policy, and existing policies that address de-escalation do not align with best practices.”

The report also found that sheriff’s policies do not require deputies to properly justify and document force, and they mischaracterize weapons that are potentially lethal.

De-escalation policies criticized

The department’s use-of-force strategy is anchored by “Policy 300,” which lists about four imprecise de-escalation options and provides few specifics. Yet Policy 300 lists 19 factors that would warrant the use of reasonable force, the report said. In the 1,000-page manual for the Orange County jail system, the term “de-escalate” is used only once and incorrectly.

Meanwhile, in San Diego, the police de-escalation policy is filled with options, including one to create distance by seeking cover and selecting positions that place physical barriers between the officer and the subject, creating a buffer zone.

“An effective de-escalation policy should … also dictate that, when feasible, deputies display empathy, and establish rapport by asking questions, engaging in conversation and actively listening,” the report said. “OCSD generally excludes these concepts from its policies and procedural manuals.”

For instance, the jail manual encourages deputies to use “command presence” and “verbal commands” to gain compliance, but these actions without de-escalation methods might make matters worse in an in-custody setting, the report said.

“OCSD policies mischaracterize or implicitly define de-escalate improperly or insufficiently,” the report said.

The department’s patrol manual suggests that less-lethal weapons may be used to “de-escalate” a potentially dangerous or deadly incident. “However, instructing deputies they may shoot someone with a 12-gauge shotgun that discharges ‘less-lethal’ munitions in order to de-escalate a situation muddles the primary goal of de-escalation, which is to avoid force altogether,” the report said.

The Sheriff’s Department also has not kept up with legal changes in how California regulates deadly force. In January 2020, the state changed the standard for deadly force away from force that is “objectionably reasonable” to force that is “necessary.” The department put out a bulletin, but did not change its policy until January 2021 — a year later. And the manner in which the new policy is presented by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department puts too much emphasis on the officer’s intent, the report says.

‘Troubling’ training anecdotes

The report also noted that some trainers shared “troubling anecdotes,” while teaching deputies about such things as knowing where cameras are located.

“In my day, you knew where to go (in the jail) in order to tweak a problem inmate’s fingers while you were handcuffing them,” an instructor said.

Perez and Morse also wrote they interviewed a nonsworn jailer who said deputies often twist inmates’ wrists — called a wrist lock — when they feel disrespected.

Another academy instructor recounted pulling over a driver who was “dripping parolee, if you know what I mean.” The report called that a biased statement that might encourage deputies to trust their undefined instinct above observable facts necessary to support a vehicle stop.

Another instructor used language or relied on concepts that could stigmatize the mentally ill, the report said.

“One instructor unfairly — and alarmingly — presented information that potentially typecasts all individuals with mental illness as potential murderers,” the report said.

The lesson was, “Danger to others? Why do all mass shooters look like mass shooters?”

The audit also reviewed use-of-force reports and found that many used canned language, such as “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving.” Many crime reports gave little detail about the deputies’ actions. “Deputies routinely filed reports that described only the force they used — not force they likely observed other deputies using.”

Hired to resuscitate oversight

Perez, formerly an adviser with the Los Angeles County Inspector General’s Office, was hired in early 2020 to resuscitate an Orange County office that had done little to monitor the Sheriff’s Department. The Board of Supervisors in the past even talked about possibly defunding and dismantling the oversight office.

Instead, board members hired Perez and expanded his duties to include monitoring the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the Probation Department and the county’s social services agency.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Source: Orange County Register

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