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What happens when police understand that #BlackLivesMatter.
What happens when police understand that #BlackLivesMatter.
Anadolu Agency via Getty

How to not shoot civilians

9 community policing tips from a chief who got it right

story,interview

You don't expect to see a police chief at a protest against police brutality. But when Richmond, California held a protest against recent police shootings of unarmed black men, Richmond's police chief, Chris Magnus, was there on the front lines, holding a #BlackLivesMatter sign.

Magnus was criticized by his local police association for his appearance at the protest — the association claimed that they didn't have any problem with the message, but it was against California law for him to appear in "political activities of any kind" while in uniform. But Magnus is clearly doing something right in Richmond, a Bay Area town of 107,000. When Vox talked to Magnus earlier this year, the cops hadn't killed a civilian in five years. (A Richmond police officer fatally shot a civilian on September 14th.)

Magnus cautions that "policing is local," and that what works for his department might not be appropriate for others. But here are some lessons he's learned about leading a department that doesn't use force as a first resort.

1) Don't recruit cops by promising violence and adventure

"You have to be thinking, as a police administrator, about what kind of folks you want to attract to your department, and how you do that. You look at some departments' recruiting materials, and you see guys jumping out of trucks in SWAT gear and people armed with every imaginable weapon. There are clearly situations where that is a necessary and appropriate part of police work. But having said that, that is by far and away not the norm.

SWAT team training

This should not be the main image on a police recruitment brochure. (Boston Globe via Getty)

"My goal is to look for people who want to work in my community, not because it's a place where they think they're going to be dealing with a lot of violence and hot chases and armed individuals and excitement and an episode of Cops or something. I want them tactically capable to handle situations like that, but I want them to be here because they're interested in building a partnership with the community. They're not afraid to have a relationship with the residents that they serve, in terms of getting out of the car and talking to people. Those are messages that have to be sent early on, before people even get hired."

2) Train officers not just in what they can do, but in how to make good decisions

"It's important that officers have training that involves more than just being proficient in the use of a firearm. Obviously that's something they need to be able to do, but a big part of our training around use of force, specifically with use of firearms, is training in decision-making under stress. How and when do you consider the use of deadly force? What are the other options that were available to you?

"There are still a lot of police academies in this country, whether they're through police agencies, colleges, or other institutions, that are probably not as far along as they should be in some of these areas. As a field, we can do better."

3) Give cops extra training in interacting with mentally-ill people — and teenagers

"We've done quite a bit of training, with our school resource officers and our juvenile detectives, about some of the better ways to communicate with youth — what approaches might be most appropriate if you have to use force. Some of that's really about brain development, and we're learning that young people really do respond differently than adults do."

"We do a lot of training dealing with the mentally ill. We have officers on all of our shifts who have gotten even more detailed and involved training — crisis intervention training — dealing specifically with mentally-ill individuals. That covers understanding what the signs are that someone may be in a mental-health crisis, understanding about medications and the impact of those medicines that a lot of folks might be on, understanding what happens when they're not taking their medication, and getting better knowledge on how to interact or engage with people who are in crisis."

4) Training doesn't stop when you get out on the street

"Our officers go through what is anywhere between six and eight months of additional training once they hit the streets. That involves being teamed up with other officers who are trained as trainers, and who provide them with ongoing and regular evaluation about what they're doing and help them learn from their mistakes in a more controlled setting."

5) Remember that you can kill someone with a Taser

"Part of the problem with Tasers out in the community is, perhaps, this particular piece of law enforcement equipment has been misrepresented to suggest that it always can guarantee a good, less-than-lethal outcome. And that's not true. People have complicated health histories which you can't possibly know, most of the time, when you're dealing with them. There may be a lot of circumstances that complicate the use of a Taser that you couldn't know in advance.

"The vast majority of our Taser use involves displaying it and informing the suspect that resisting arrest will result in them being tased. In other words, we don't even necessarily deploy it. And that's enough, most of the time."

Taser demonstration

This is a Taser-sponsored demonstration, but in real life just displaying the Taser is usually enough. (Jeff Topping/Getty)

6) Be proactive in addressing officers who use a lot of force — before they become a problem

"We have a database in which we track each officer's history in terms of how they use force. If we see an officer who seems to be using force more than somebody else, we take a more careful look at that. That doesn't always mean that the officer is doing something wrong or that they're just predisposed to use force. It might have to do with the area that they're working, the incidents they've been dealing with. But it still never hurts that we look more carefully and try to be as proactive as possible in addressing a situation before it becomes, potentially, a problem."

7) Don't be afraid to fire someone who's not cut out to be a police officer

"It's hard when you've invested as much as a year or more into training somebody. But there are clearly some folks who can't multitask, they can't make good decisions under stress, they're not effective communicators. For whatever reasons, they're not cut out to be police officers. Part of the challenge of a professional police department is to make sure those folks are separated from service early on. So you have to be willing to do that — and to have the local political support within your city to do that."

Ron Johnson Ferguson

As Missouri Highway Patrol officer Ron Johnson's work in Ferguson showed, it's much harder to build trust after an incident. (Joe Raedle/Getty)

8) When force really is needed, a little community trust goes a long way

"The use of force is something that, when people see it, they're horrified by it. Even though it may be completely legitimate and appropriate in a larger scheme, it's not easy to watch, and it's even more difficult to have to be part of.

"You have to have an underlying relationship with the community so that there's a level of trust and understanding and people are willing to hear you out about why force was used in a set of circumstances. And the community can trust that when mistakes are made — which sometimes happens — your department's going to learn from them so they're not repeated."

9) Police departments can't do sufficient training without resources

"It's totally appropriate and important that we have this national conversation about use of force. But I hope along with that is a commitment to the idea that it takes resources and financial support to do this kind of training. A lot of departments don't even have the personnel that they need to handle many of these situations. They certainly don't have the resources to commit to that type of training and equipment. So then you have cops that are really left with a knowledge gap and a resource gap. And I've worked in some smaller departments, where I've seen that it's very tough."

CORRECTION: This article originally said that the Richmond Police Department hadn't had any civilian deaths in officer-involved shootings. On September 14th, after this interview was conducted but before the article was published, a Richmond police officer fatally shot a civilian. The article has been corrected to reflect this event.

You don't expect to see a police chief at a protest against police brutality. But when Richmond, California held a protest against recent police shootings of unarmed black men, Richmond's police chief, Chris Magnus, was there on the front lines, holding a #BlackLivesMatter sign.

Magnus was criticized by his local police association for his appearance at the protest — the association claimed that they didn't have any problem with the message, but it was against California law for him to appear in "political activities of any kind" while in uniform. But Magnus is clearly doing something right in Richmond, a Bay Area town of 107,000. When Vox talked to Magnus earlier this year, the cops hadn't killed a civilian in five years. (A Richmond police officer fatally shot a civilian on September 14th.)

Magnus cautions that "policing is local," and that what works for his department might not be appropriate for others. But here are some lessons he's learned about leading a department that doesn't use force as a first resort.

Dara Lind: Talk to me about Richmond and your department. What's your record on use of force look like?

Chris Magnus: This is a community that deals with a lot of crime. It's gotten significantly better over the years, but this is by no means a low-speed suburban enclave. Richmond is a busy urban environment. In the recent past, we were taking two guns a day off the street. For a number of reasons, happily, that's gone down, and now we're closer to a gun a day. But for a community of 110,000, that's still a lot of encounters that could end very badly.

And since 2008, we've only had five incidents where our officers have actually shot suspects. And all of those have resulted in injury, not death. (Note: on September 14th, after this interview was conducted, a Richmond police officer fatally shot a civilian.) That is pretty remarkable given the level of gun violence we have in our city and the number of guns we're taking off the street.

This really does speak to the fact that people are using a lot of restraint in the way they use force. They have a lot of experience and they're very thoughtful and creative in using a lot of different kinds of alternatives.

Ron Johnson Ferguson

As Missouri Highway Patrol officer Ron Johnson's work in Ferguson showed, it's much harder to build trust after an incident. (Joe Raedle/Getty)

Dara Lind: The professionals I've talked to have said that use-of-force policy is generally viewed as a force continuum, but there's not a lot of consensus about how that looks. What's the force continuum like in your department?

Chris Magnus: I think of use of force as kind of a circle, and on that circle, around the perimeter, there are a number of different choices that, depending on the situation, an officer would be able to go directly to that particular resource or approach or tool. There are obviously going to be circumstances where the threat that the officer is dealing with, or the risk that a member of the public might be dealing with, are so great that it wouldn't make sense to start at the bottom of a force continuum. But there might be several different approaches that you might take.

What we try to do is give our officers as many resources and as much training as possible to deal with different kinds of threats and circumstances, and then give them lots of practice in how to make the best possible choice that resolves that situation, hopefully, with the least amount of force necessary to reach a safe outcome for everybody involved.

One of the things that is particularly important is that officers receive more than just tactical training. It's an ongoing process, and it has to be repeated yearly, sometimes more often. We do a monthly firearms training — but that's not necessarily always out at the firing range. It's important that officers have training that involves more than just being proficient in the use of a firearm. Obviously, that's something they need to be able to do, but a big part of our training around use of force, specifically with use of firearms, is training in decision-making under stress. How and when do you consider the use of deadly force? What are the other options that were available to you?

Dara Lind: Logistically, how does this training work?

Chris Magnus: It's important, first of all, that officers go through a police academy that has an appropriate level of training on not only the technical aspects of using a firearm, but also about how they make decisions and how they talk to people. There are still a lot of police academies in this country, whether they're through police agencies, colleges, or other institutions, that are probably not as far along as they should be in some of these areas. As a field, we can do better.

But then, our officers go through what is anywhere between six and eight months of additional training once they hit the streets. That involves being teamed up with other officers who are trained as trainers and who provide them with ongoing and regular evaluation about what they're doing and help them learn from their mistakes in a more controlled setting.

Firearms training

This is not the only kind of training cops need. (Boston Globe via Getty)

During that time period, we also discover whether people are really right for the job or not. And that's hard when you've invested as much as a year or more into training somebody. But there are clearly some folks who can't multitask, they can't make good decisions under stress, they're not effective communicators. For whatever reasons, they're not cut out to be police officers. And part of the challenge of a professional police department is to make sure those folks are separated from service early on. So you have to be willing to do that — and to have the local political support within your city to do that.

Dara Lind: Does that apply also to officers who come from other departments?

Chris Magnus:Yes, it does.

You have to be thinking, as a police administrator, about what kind of folks you want to attract to your department, and how you do that. You look at some departments' recruiting materials, and you see guys jumping out of trucks in SWAT gear and people armed with every imaginable weapon. There are clearly situations where that is a necessary and appropriate part of police work. But that is by far and away not the norm.

My goal, at least, is to look for people who want to work in my community, not because it's a place where they think they're going to be dealing with a lot of violence and hot chases and armed individuals and excitement and an episode of Cops or something. I want them tactically capable to handle situations like that, but I want them to be here because they're interested in building a partnership with the community. They're not afraid to have a relationship with the residents that they serve, in terms of getting out of the car and talking to people. They're not interested in being the anonymous cop who goes from call to call, but rather getting to know people and building a level of trust and communication.

Those are messages that have to be sent early on, before people even get hired. You look at different departments' recruiting materials, and it becomes clear that they have different types of officers that they want to bring on board.

SWAT team training

This should not be the main image on a police recruitment brochure. (Boston Globe via Getty)

That's relevant to the use-of-force discussion because I believe that, by and large, I have officers here who are very committed to being safe. They want to go home at the end of their shift, but they don't approach the community with an "us vs. them" mentality. They're assigned to a beat; they work that beat every day; they know the residents. That makes a huge difference when it comes to having to use force. Their first choice in most situations would be to try to talk to people or gain voluntary cooperation. But if they have to use it, they also have the training, the experience, the right tools and equipment, and the level of backup in a way that minimizes the chance somebody's going to get hurt — whether it's themselves or somebody else.

Dara Lind: What types of alternatives does the department recommend to officers?

Chris Magnus: In a lot of situations where someone's shot by the police, you have a single officer — or even, sometimes, two officers — who end up jumping out of a car and basically chasing someone into an area where they hope to hide or where they may already be familiar. It's a very dangerous situation for the officer, and it puts them at a significant disadvantage.

We try to focus more on setting up a perimeter and containing a suspect in an area. Once you have a perimeter set up and somebody's contained, it really gives everyone a chance to slow down, and there are a lot more options that become available. Utilize an officer with a canine, do a track, get better information from witnesses. For us, that happens a lot of the time.

Dara Lind:A lot of professionals say that it's very difficult for training to cover certain situations, like dealing with civilians who are mentally ill or substance abusers. Is that something that your department covers in training? How successful is that?

Chris Magnus: Especially in today's world and certainly in our area, we would be seriously negligent as a department if we weren't providing our officers with a greater range of tools and resources to deal with those issues. We do a lot of training dealing with the mentally ill. We have officers on all of our shifts who have gotten even more detailed and involved training — crisis intervention training — dealing specifically with mentally-ill individuals. That covers understanding what the signs are that someone may be in a mental health crisis, understanding about medications and the impact of those medicines that a lot of folks might be on, understanding what happens when they're not taking their medication, and getting better knowledge on how to interact or engage with people who are in crisis.

A somewhat related but different scenario is the increasing understanding that a lot of departments — maybe I'm being overly optimistic — are coming to in dealing with young people: realizing how the adolescent brain develops and responds to authority and the use of force. Which is pretty significantly different than older folks. We've done quite a bit of training with our school resource officers and our juvenile detectives about some of the better ways to communicate with youth, and what approaches might be most appropriate if you have to use force. Some of that's really about brain development, and we're learning that young people really do respond differently than adults do.

Dara Lind: How feasible is it for a department to provide all this training for officers?

Chris Magnus: It's totally appropriate and important that we have this national conversation about use of force. But I hope along with that is a commitment to the idea that it takes resources and financial support to do this kind of training. A lot of departments don't even have the personnel that they need to handle many of these situations. They certainly don't have the resources to commit to that type of training and equipment. So then you have cops that are really left with a knowledge gap and a resource gap. And I've worked in some smaller departments, where I've seen that it's very tough.

Dara Lind: How does your department treat use of less-lethal weapons, like Tasers?

Chris Magnus: It's a valuable tool. I don't think it's a guarantee of a less-than-lethal outcome, because we've certainly seen examples where people who have been tased have died. And officers need to understand that. Part of the problem with Tasers out in the community is, perhaps, this particular piece of law enforcement equipment has been misrepresented to suggest that it always can guarantee a good, less-than-lethal outcome. And that's not true. People have complicated health histories which you can't possibly know, most of the time, when you're dealing with them. There may be a lot of circumstances that complicate the use of a Taser that you couldn't know in advance.

Taser demonstration

This is a Taser-sponsored demonstration, but in real life just displaying the Taser is usually enough. (Jeff Topping/Getty)

The vast majority of our Taser use involves displaying it and informing the suspect that resisting arrest will result in them being tased. In other words, we don't even necessarily deploy it. And that's enough, most of the time. But that doesn't always work. And the Taser can be a very important alternative to a situation where you might have to shoot someone otherwise.

Dara Lind: What's the process for reviewing use-of-force incidents?

Chris Magnus: First of all, officers are required to document any force that they use. Not only do they have to document that in the police reports that they might write up about an incident, but also in the specific use-of-force form. All of the documentation they do has to be reviewed by a supervisor.

All of it then goes to a monthly use-of-force committee that includes one of our subject matter experts, who's involved in our training around use of force and tactics, and our legal adviser. They review the reports and look at "What can we learn? Do we have a training deficiency? Is this a situation where we need to work with an individual officer?" And if they see something that appears on its face to be a violation of our policy, they put their process on hold and send the incident to our Professional Standards Unit for investigation and follow-up. Which can lead to the conclusion that things were handled okay, and that's fine, but it might also show that there were policy violations and either additional training or discipline is warranted, depending on the circumstances and the officer involved.

We have a database in which we track each officer's history in terms of how they use force. If we see an officer who seems to be using force more than somebody else, we take a more careful look at that. That doesn't always mean that the officer is doing something wrong or that they're just predisposed to use force. It might have to do with the area that they're working, the incidents they've been dealing with. But it still never hurts that we look more carefully and try to be as proactive as possible in addressing a situation before it becomes, potentially, a problem.

Ferguson protestor "killer cops" sign

Dara Lind: What happens in situations when the officer feels the use of force might be appropriate, but the community is still angry about the decision?

Chris Magnus: One of the challenges that police are going to be dealing with more and more is that using force, especially force that involves hands-on fighting with somebody, is not only difficult to do, as a cop — and your risk of injury is huge — but it's something that people don't like to see. What's the analogy about making sausage? It tastes great, but you really don't want to see how it's made? The use of force is something that, when people see it, they're horrified by it. Even though it may be completely legitimate and appropriate in a larger scheme, it's not easy to watch, and it's even more difficult to have to be part of.

You have to have an underlying relationship with the community so that there's a level of trust and understanding and people are willing to hear you out about why force was used in a set of circumstances. And the community can trust that when mistakes are made — which sometimes happens — your department's going to learn from them so they're not repeated.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION: This article originally said that the Richmond Police Department hadn't had any civilian deaths in officer-involved shootings. On September 14th, after this interview was conducted but before the article was published, a Richmond police officer fatally shot a civilian. The article has been corrected to reflect this event.

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