Police Chief David Nisleit and Mayor Kevin Faulconer at 2018 press conference. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Mayor Kevin Faulconer and police Chief David Nisleit announced Wednesday the city’s adoption of two “stand-alone policies” designed to address community concerns about excessive use of force on the part of the San Diego Police Department and resulting potential for “unnecessary loss of life.”

The new rules require officers — not merely encourage them, as previously was the case — to pursue de-escalation of potentially violent situations by all means possible and to intervene if they witness a colleague engaging in excessive force, Faulconer said during an afternoon briefing at SDPD headquarters.

The regulations, developed along with three local oversight bodies that held emergency meetings on the topic this month, will allow police to “reduce the use of force, further embrace the highest standards of accountability, increase public trust and protect against the unnecessary loss of life,” the mayor said.

The retooled policy was endorsed in recent weeks by the San Diego Citizens Advisory Board on Police and Community Relations, the Community Review Board on Police Practices, and the Human Relations Commission.

“Today we are pleased to announce that the San Diego Police Department has approved it and is putting it into action,” Faulconer said.

The regulations require officers, “when safe and reasonable,” to employ “techniques that can resolve situations, either through lower levels of force or no force at all,” the mayor said.

The promoted tactics include creating a “buffer zone” between a potentially violent subject and officers; calling on such “specialized resources” as the SDPD Psychiatric Emergency Response Team; and establishing an “effective line of communication, considering factors such as mental illness, possible intoxication and potential medical or physical conditions,” according to city officials.

“I want to be clear — force should always be the last option,” the mayor said. “But SDPD can still use reasonable force levels if de-escalation tactics do not work.”

The agency has long practiced techniques intended to “defuse” volatile policing situations, Faulconer noted.

“But now the department has separate, expanded and stand-alone policies that don’t just suggest de-escalation — they require it,” he said.

Nisleit described the envisioned improvements as objectives that SDPD leaders “have been working on for a while.”

“And as I say, we’ve been listening (to the public),” he told reporters during the briefing. “We’ve been listening a lot. We hear what the community’s concerns are.”

The police chief called the new de-escalation approach “one of the most robust” set of regulations of its kind in the country.

“It really further explains and gives expectations to our officers that (they) must look at all de-escalation (options),” Nisleit said. “At the end of the day, our goal is to solve all incidents without any use of force.”

The duty-to-intervene component of the new rules requires that police “step in if another officer is using unreasonable force and mandates that they report the incident to a supervisor,” Faulconer noted.

“This is a policy that will help make sure that what happened in Minneapolis does not happen here in San Diego,” Faulconer said, referring to the Memorial Day in-custody death of George Floyd, a watershed event that motivated calls for police reform across the country.

Nisleit described the revisions in the department’s philosophy on self- policing for excessive force as a change from an approach that officers “may or should” intervene in such wrongdoing to a requirement that they “shall.”

“It’s an absolute,” he said. “It’s a mandate, that if an officer sees (another) officer using force that is unreasonable for the resistance that they are trying to overcome, that the (witness) officer must intervene.”

Several members of local law enforcement watchdog and advisory groups praised the new policy.

Samantha Jenkins, a representative of the Community Advisory Board on Police Practices and an executive board member of the NAACP’s San Diego branch, praised Faulconer and Nisleit for “recognizing the current moment in San Diego as an impetus for addressing long-held community concerns about policing practices and policies.”

Doug Case of the Community Review Board on Police Practices called the SDPD “ahead of the curve in terms of de-escalation training mandated by the state.”

Case added, however, that “there’s a still a long road ahead” in making all the necessary reforms.

The mayor made a similar point.

“These changes do not represent the crossing of a finish line, but they do represent the bottom line — a foundation of trust that all of us … are working to build upon and improve upon,” Faulconer said.

Story updated at 5:55 p.m. Wednesday, June 24, 2020.

— City News Service

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