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Avoiding ‘lawful but awful’: How Minneapolis and St. Paul police officials are looking to change when officers use deadly force

PERF/Sarah Mostyn
Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau speaking at the January session of the Police Executive Research Forum.

In a single phrase, the head of one national police-chiefs group succinctly described the type of officer-involved shootings his organization is trying to reduce:

Lawful but awful.

Chuck Wexler used those words during a late January session of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) in Washington, D.C. They were used to describe shootings that may be considered lawful under most departments’ use-of-force policies — but that nevertheless look awful to many residents of communities, the type of incidents that have been at the center of protests against use of deadly force by police.

After two years of research that included field visits to England, Scotland and Northern Ireland — where police are rarely armed — the forum has developed a new set of protocols that emphasize de-escalation and helping police slow situations down to provide time to resolve them without gunfire.

They also ask officers to assess situations against what it terms “the test of proportionality.” For officers to ask themselves: How would the general public view the action we took? That is, would the community consider them awful even if police officers, prosecutors and grand juries assert that they are legal?

And now those policies are coming to the Twin Cities. Both Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau and St. Paul Chief Tom Smith are members of the forum, which reviewed and finalized the new policy, and both cities are deciding how to adjust use-of-force protocols and officer training into department policies.

“We’re constantly having to re-engineer what we do, and that’s what we should be doing,” said Harteau, who’s a board member of the chiefs organization. “As things change, so should we change.”

‘Contain and negotiate’

The proposed changes do not relate to threats involving guns. The changes are focused instead on confrontations with people who are armed with knives, clubs or weapons other than guns. Rather than directly confronting those people — many of whom have mental-health or substance-abuse problems — training should emphasize slowing down situations in order to “contain and negotiate.”

Harteau cites the equation “cover plus distance equals time.”  

“This is not a case of if an officer has to shoot someone, we’re saying that they shouldn’t,” she said. “That’s a fact — that deadly force is going to be used at times when it is needed. But we have an opportunity to change the thinking and the training so we don’t even get to that point.”

The forum leaders are sensitive to criticism that using the United Kingdom as a laboratory for police practices is unrealistic. Police officers there can patrol unarmed because there are relatively few firearms in the population, critics have said. But both Wexler and Harteau say that while there are certainly differences in crime and culture, it’s because of those differences that U.S. law enforcement can learn from British police

“I’m very realistic and we’re very cognizant of the fact that people don’t have guns in those countries,” Harteau said. “We have a lot of guns on the street and a lot of gun violence, and they don’t. We can’t just take what they do and overlay it here. But there are situations when an officer doesn’t have to shoot because they did other things. Can we replicate that?”

Harteau was part of a 2014 delegation to Scotland taken by members of the research forum and had planned to be part of the November 2015 return trip. She canceled, however, because it came in the aftermath of the police shooting of Jamar Clark and the nearly three-week occupation of space in front of the 4th Precinct in North Minneapolis.

Controversy, protest and video

The impetus for the policy change is the changing attitudes toward police and policing in the wake of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and other controversial deaths. And the ubiquity of video recordings — from dash and body cams to civilian recordings — has forced a change in approach, the report acknowledges.

“With all the video recording becoming available, the role of the community in reviewing police uses of force will only increase in the future,” Wexler wrote. Thus, departments need a higher standard than “not unconstitutional” and “not criminal.”

“In many of these cases, the officers’ use of force has already been deemed ‘justified,’ and prosecutors have declined to press criminal charges,“ he wrote in the report’s summary. “But that does not mean that the uses of force are considered justified by many people in the community.”

The annual PERF meeting was held at the Newseum in Washington
PERF/Sarah Mostyn
The annual PERF meeting was held at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., in January.

Wexler attributes the “disconnect” to the most-recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on officer-involved shootings, Graham v. Connor. In that 1989 case, the court found that a shooting is legally justified if it would have been considered reasonable “from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene,” even if the officer’s perception of threats turns out to be incorrect. That analysis should come with the consideration that cops make split-second decisions in situations that are “tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving,” the court noted.

Wexler wrote that there is a “growing recognition” in the profession that use-of-force reviews should not focus solely on the moment when a gun was fired but should also cover what led up to the incident. Officers should be held accountable “if they failed to de-escalate the situation in order to prevent it from ever reaching the point where the use of force was necessary.”

It’s the difference between “could” and “should” an officer fire a weapon.

Some other items among the 30 recommendations included in the report: a call for more data collection and reporting of police use of force; a prohibition on firing weapons at or from moving vehicles; a duty to render first aid promptly; more use of nonlethal weapons, and an obligation for officers to intervene to prevent fellow officers from using excessive force.

Culture as important as training

In his summary of the findings, Wexler called for departments to “rethink” training. “As we look back at the most controversial police shooting incidents, we sometimes find that while the shooting may be legally justified, there were missed opportunities to ratchet down the encounter, to slow things down, to call in additional resources, in the minutes before the shooting occurred,” he wrote.

He said the conclusion of the chiefs is that police practices need to “change dramatically,” something that may be difficult for some in policing to accept. “We give officers many hours of training on how to shoot a gun,”  he wrote. “But we spend much less time discussing the importance of de-escalation tactics and Crisis Intervention strategies for dealing with mentally ill persons, homeless persons and other challenging situations.” The report calls for fewer lectures and more “scenario-based” training of officers.

The report also said that while training is an issue that must be addressed, so is police culture. Trainees are taught the importance of getting home safely after each shift. Officers are taught to be mindful that they face danger every day and should be ready to protect themselves. But the proposed protocols call for officers to be protective of all life, not just their own life and their partner’s life.

“A number of departments have begun to build their use-of-force policies around statements of principle about the sanctity of all human life,” the summary states. “Some of the officer-involved shootings that have been most controversial seem to reflect training that has officers think solely about their own safety rather than a broader approach designed to protect everyone’s lives.”

Another cultural belief that should change is one that concludes that officers should move in and take charge — never back down. “If an officer slows a situation down and calls for assistance, there is sometimes a feeling that other responding officers will think, ‘What, you couldn’t handle this yourself?’ Wexler wrote.

Harteau said she sees that attitude among some of her officers, and thinks it might be a generational split. “Some of the more seasoned officers are in that mindset, more than our newer officers, because training now is very much a team concept,” she said.

During her early days as a street cop, she said, it was standard practice for other officers to back up fellow cops who were on a domestic assault call. “It’s always better to have more numbers, more eyes, more options.”

The 21-foot rule

The rule reflects another bit of police culture — the rule-of-thumb that a suspect armed with a knife should be kept at least 21 feet from the officer or others. Once that barrier is crossed, many officers and departments believe the shooting of the assailant is justified to protect the officer from harm.

The reasoning is that an assailant with a knife is close enough to harm the officer or others in a short amount of time. Once the threshold has been crossed, officers are trained to stop the possible attack, with gunfire if necessary.

“It’s not like you have this automatic ability to shoot at 21 feet here,” Harteau said. “But it is still something that is in the back of officers’ minds because it has been drilled into their heads and passed down.” The chiefs group suggests getting rid of any hard policies based on distance and train officers to buy more time if possible — to create a “reaction gap” between themselves and an knife-armed person. Harteau calls it “moving the box.” The forum also proposes greater use of nonlethal weapons like sprays and Tasers —  and even shields — to protect officers from harm without using firearms.

In a New York Times op-ed this week, Wexler and Camden County, New Jersey Police Chief Scott Thomson summarized the approach this way: “The key for the police in such circumstances is to slow things down: to ask questions rather than bark orders, to speak in a normal tone, to summon additional resources if necessary. Pulling out a gun on an anxious person may unintentionally raise his level of stress.”

The forum proposes greater use of nonlethal weapons like shields
REUTERS/Hazir Reka
The forum proposes greater use of nonlethal weapons like sprays and Tasers — and even shields — to protect officers from harm without using firearms.

Minneapolis already gives officers de-escalation training and is currently putting 500 officers through a 40-hour crisis intervention training. This is on top of ongoing procedural justice training and implicit bias training that is part of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a three-year federal program that includes Minneapolis and five other police departments.

St. Paul’s Chief Smith was not available to talk about how the department might use the proposed protocols, but department spokesman Sgt. Mike Ernster said the Sept. 24 police shooting of Philip Quinn raised issues that are touched upon in the research forum report. In that case, officers responded to reports of a man with a screwdriver who had known mental health issues.

At one point, responding officers backed away from a garage where Quinn was standing and the man ran away. When they returned to his home hours later after getting calls from his family, they intended to contain him, Smith asserted at a February press conference. But when Quinn appeared to rush officers, he was shot. A grand jury decided not to charge Officer Richard McGuire in the death. Quinn family members, however, witnessed the shooting and say Quinn was just trying to run away because he felt surrounded and didn’t want to be arrested.  “We wanted to wait,” Ernster said. “But the situation took off before resources could gather.”

Union response

Bob Kroll is a Minneapolis police lieutenant and president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis. He’s concerned about the proposed use-of-force protocols. “You can’t go back and recreate Graham v. Connor,” Kroll said, something he believes the chiefs group is trying to do. “Use of force is dependent on the situation you are facing.”

Having a supervisor review a situation after the fact — something he dubbed Monday morning quarterbacking — is unfair to officers. “I don’t know who would want to do this job anymore,” Kroll said. “So there’s a guy with a knife who may have mental health issues and is a risk to others and we have to go after him with a shield? We’re not in the time of gladiators anymore.”

Kroll called the work of groups like the research forum as “ivory tower” thinking. “We used to say, ‘They’ve been in administration too long, they’ve forgotten what it’s like on the street.’”

Kroll, however, did endorse the current conflict resolution and de-escalation training. “When feasible you want to slow it down,” he said. “But sometimes, no matter what you do, you can’t de-escalate. You need some real cops to step up and take someone down.”

Next Steps

Harteau said that because she is on the research forum board and has been involved in the review of use of force for several years, she has been making changes to policy and training over that time. Of the 30 proposals, she said 14 are already in policy, four more exist but need updating, eight are in progress or are being seriously considered and seven are under early review. Among those in only early stages of review are bans on firing into vehicles, the use of shields and how the department releases information on use-of-force incidents.

“I’m proud of the fact we’ve been incredibly proactive,” Harteau said. “We’re at the table to have the conversation, to get the input. The city of Minneapolis should be pleased with that.”

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 03/04/2016 - 10:17 am.

    Only Monday morning quarterbacks say when a police officer is being approached by a person with a knife to not pull your gun and just talk calmly to him. That police officer wants to go home to his family that day and kiss his children goodnight. The 21 foot rule wasn’t just picked out of the air, it has been shown that if a guy with a knife gets within that 21 foot barrier and you haven’t drawn your weapon and are not ready to match his force with force of your own, you can get killed. If you are asking the police to stop and think how the public will view a life and death situation while you are in the middle of trying to sort out that chaos, you are out of touch with policing.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/04/2016 - 11:07 am.

    Use the same standard that the public is held to

    As a concealed carry permit holder, I know that I may use deadly force only if I believe that my life or the lives of others around me are in immediate danger. That means if I have to shoot an attacker he had better be facing me with obvious intention to do me harm.

    If he ever turns his back on me to escape or falls to the ground wounded by my actions, I am to cease firing immediately. All permit holders know this and abide by those rules or be subject to criminal charges of manslaughter or even murder.

    But I have seen video footage of police officers firing at fleeing suspects. I saw one where a driver was being chased by the cop, stopped and exited his car, and was running away from the scene when the cop calmly fired 9 rounds into his back. I have seen footage of multiple officers shooting at a perp who is down on the ground, obviously disabled, yet they continued firing.

    It seems to me that if the police had to follow the same rules as civilians are held to, it would go a long way to solving the controversy.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/04/2016 - 12:08 pm.


      I couldn’t agree with you more on this point. Deadly force should be a last resort, not a default response.

    • Submitted by Dan Berg on 03/04/2016 - 12:49 pm.


      I think these are very appropriate standards and there is no reason to allow police to follow lower standards when they are the ones we pay and train to handle these situations. In general it seems that a foundational issue with police conduct is that they are allowed more leeway in their behavior than those they are hired to protect.

      The culture of police being separate from others is engrained in the language as well with the ideas of non-police being “citizens” while the police are something different. All of this feeding in to the fact that cops have traditionally done a terrible job holding themselves to the standards of the law they should be enforcing. Cops credibility is limited to the level to which they hold themselves accountable.

      • Submitted by Patrick Scott on 03/04/2016 - 06:42 pm.

        Says who?

        Upon what do you base the outrageous comment “cops have traditionally done a terrible job holding themselves to the standards of the law they should be enforcing”? I suspect there to be a bit too much Hollywood lurking behind that little gem.

        • Submitted by Dan Berg on 03/05/2016 - 07:23 am.

          little things

          Remember the gang strike force just a few years back? Basically a group assigned to fight criminal gangs that took their assignment as a license to rob the communities in which they worked.

          No convictions of the officers of course because once they realized the auditor was on to them they started to clear out their offices and destroy evidence. Given the scale of the crimes being committed there was no way any office on the team didn’t realize there was something going on. So either they were all guilty or the ones that weren’t refused to tell anybody what was going on.

          Or how about in Chicago where just one officer spent nearly 20 years torturing over 200 “suspects” in a myriad of disgusting ways before there was finally so much evidence that it could no longer be ignored. The practice was well known of course but nobody did anything about it because your not suppose to talk ill of cops. The officer in question was finally sentenced to about 4 years for obstruction and perjury. They couldn’t get him for the actual torture because the status of limitations had run out while his fellow officers protected him.

          These are just two fairly recent examples that have parallels in every major city across the country. The stories in LA and New York are equally terrible. Add to that the systematic “legal” behavior that encourages cops to fund their own operations by stealing property from “suspects” even if they don’t have enough evidence for the attorney’s office to press charges and you have a culture that is likely more perverted and sick than any movie reflection could be.

          There is absolutely nothing outrageous about the comment recognizing the reality rather than sycophantically defend a group because they seem to be the toughest bullies in the room.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 03/04/2016 - 11:19 am.

    Good article….

    High time that the ‘guidelines’ were updated..why did it take so long ? .Common sense would tell virtually anyone that one need not put 16 bullets into a person coming at you with a knife, baseball bat, etc. What happened to ‘disable’ ?….if he/she is within the magic 21 feet and one has to shoot, shoot them in the leg first. The Fargo police, and the officer who was killed while responding to a domestic, knew that the suspect was a threat and he had stated publicly that he would do harm anyone who approached. That is a different scenario from where guns are not involved by the assailant.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/04/2016 - 11:45 am.

    For a change…

    …I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Tester, particularly about what, for lack of a better civilian term, I’ll call “rules of engagement.” Mr. Kroll is doing what a union rep is supposed to do – defending fellow union members – but that doesn’t make his viewpoint the only valid one.

    I’m a lot less enthused about supervisor review than I am about *civilian* review. The police are supposed to be working for us civilians, not the other way around. If Mr. Kroll doesn’t like the idea of public oversight, perhaps he should find another line of work – a suggestion made to me and my professional colleagues more than once when we chafed under the 1st Amendment restrictions of the job of being in front of a room full of adolescents in a public school. I learned to live with those restrictions, and the police ought to come to terms with the idea that they have not been given a figurative blank check when it comes to operating procedures.

    Yes, it’s a tough job, but I’m not aware of any police officers, at least in this country, who’ve been forced into it. I’m inclined to think that, if an officer on the street has to, just for a brief second, think about “How is this going to look to the public?” or perhaps more accurately, “How is this going to look on the 5 or 10 o’clock news?” it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Shooting someone, even if that someone is armed, ought to be a *last resort,* not a *first response,* and as Mr. Tester so succinctly put it, once that suspect has turned away to escape or has fallen to the ground wounded, the officer should cease fire immediately. A badge should not – cannot be allowed to – be interpreted by its holder as a license to kill.

    • Submitted by Patrick Scott on 03/04/2016 - 06:39 pm.


      If Officer McGuire had taken “a brief second” to consider how an uninformed public would be manipulated into viewing his shooting of Quinn, he would likely be dead. Many of your comments are being presumptuous from the security of a recliner.

  5. Submitted by Alan Straka on 03/04/2016 - 02:39 pm.

    The 21 foot rule is based on the distance a suspect can cover in the time it takes an officer to unholster his weapon, aim and fire. In most cases the officer already has his weapon pointed at the suspect and all he needs to do is pull the trigger. The 21 foot rule still applies when something under 10 feet should be used.

  6. Submitted by Patrick Scott on 03/04/2016 - 06:20 pm.

    Addressing the confused

    Where to begin with the well intentioned but ill informed comments? First off, there is no such thing as a “Concealed Carry Permit” in Minnesota. It is simply a “Permit to Carry”, open or concealed. OF COURSE the guidelines for the use of deadly force are more restrictive. You have a mere fraction of the training a police has received and are far less knowledgable on the legal issues. The cop shooting the fleeing motorist in the back who had assaulted him? That was not within ANY guidelines and the officer was charged with murder. A civilian has no obligation to stop a dangerous, fleeing suspect from harming other members of the public, a police officer does. We had all better hope that the day never comes when an officer can NEVER shoot at a fleeing suspect. And please, don’t ever again say what you can “obviously see” in a video. That is NEVER the case with a 2 dimensional video.
    Sometimes, what is hoped to be a “last resort” must actually be the first.
    Shooting to “disable” is a dangerous myth. During a stressful situation, an arm or leg is too small and difficult a target, increasing risk to innocents in the likely case of a miss. And trust me, a screwdriver to the orbital socket is every bit as dangerous as a gun.

  7. Submitted by Helen Hunter on 03/06/2016 - 12:45 pm.

    Remembering the Victims

    Many excellent and thoughtful comments here. When I read the story, I thought of the people who have “died in encounters with police”, as I’ve heard these tragedies described (elsewhere than these comments). I agree with the PERF recommendations to reduce the numbers of citizens killed. But I can not help thinking of the fact, testified to by witnesses in Michael Brown’s killing, by video in the man suffocated by a policeman with an illegal chokehold in, I believe, Long Island, NY, and many other videos and eyewitnesses, or the victim herself or himself if they survived — of the people, usually white men but not all, police officers hired to keep the peace, who escalated these situations from mild to murderous themselves. No amount of training in de-escalating others’ behavior is going to be effective in stopping these perpetrators.
    Only prompt and stringent consequences, including honest investigation, indicting or charging with the crime committed, honest trial and if convicted, appropriate prison sentences, will teach people who misuse their office and power, that they have in fact committed crimes. And a register must be kept, available to all law enforcement agencies, to prevent these perpetrators from being hired in the same area of work.
    Yes of course they want to go home and kiss their kids in the evening! So did their victims.
    No matter what good changes come out of the Police Chiefs’ reforms, and I ardently hope they will, it’s too late for those who have already died, and whose families and friends will bear the pain of their grief and their knowledga that their loved ones’ killers were never punished, for the rest of their lives.
    They need recognition of the reality of all they have lost. That includes, with the rest of us, the ability to trust that basic justice will be done to all of us on the streets and in the courtrooms of this country, which belongs equally to all of us.

  8. Submitted by miki polumbaum on 03/23/2016 - 08:57 am.

    This abuse of power by police is problematic throughout the U. S

    It’s a huge problem that needs to be changed. One good step forward towards change would be for police departments in cities, towns and villages throughout the United States to be required to create either Civilian Review Boards, or to at least have one or two Civilian Overseers in their departments.

    That, imho, would go a long way towards holding police departments throughout the United States accountable for the misuse and/or abuse of power by any cops.

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