Northfield police chief, Selectboard update use-of-force policies

  • A police cruiser parks outside the entrance to the Northfield Police Station, located in the basement of Town Hall. The Selectboard approved updates to the town’s use-of-force policies that detail how officers should respond when another officer uses excessive force, and how such instances should be documented. Staff Photo/Zack DeLuca

Staff Writer
Published: 8/14/2020 2:11:15 PM
Modified: 8/14/2020 2:11:03 PM

NORTHFIELD — After a discussion with Police Chief Robert Leighton this week, the Selectboard approved updates to the town’s use-of-force policies that detail how officers should respond when another officer uses excessive force, and how such instances should be documented.

The updates come following a previous discussion about the use-of-force policies between Leighton and the Selectboard in June, where they also considered getting body cameras for the Police Department, a topic the board plans to discuss in the future.

Selectboard Chair Alex Meisner and fellow member Heath Cummings, who has past experience in law enforcement, previously expressed interest in language that addresses a responsibility for officers to intervene, should an incident of excessive force occur.

Thus, Section E of the updated use-of-force policy specifically addresses excessive force. The policy states that under no circumstances are officers authorized to use excessive force, and where an officer perceives that another officer is engaging in the use of excessive force, he or she shall take reasonable measures to intervene and deescalate the situation.

“I like the language in there,” Cummings commented. “I’ve seen similar policies from other departments and it says ‘they also should’ take responsibilities. This one says ‘they shall’ take responsible measures.”

Additionally, if an officer observes an incident of excessive force by another officer, he or she shall, as soon as practical, report the observations to the police chief. The policy outlines the procedure for documenting any observation of excessive force by a Northfield police officer, or by any other uniformed officer, Leighton said.

Section H, which focuses on reporting, explains that when drafting a report in the department’s records management system, the officer shall describe the nature of force used, the identity of all officers involved in the use of force, reasons and circumstances that required the use of force, the extent of injuries observed, the ambulance service and medical treatment facility used and identity of all known witnesses.

To clarify what constitutes excessive force, the document states that officers should “use only the force that is reasonably necessary to accomplish lawful objectives, such as to make a lawful arrest, to place a person into protective custody, to effectively bring an incident under control, or to protect the lives or safety of the officer and others.” The level of force used by an officer shall be a response based on the officer’s perspective of the situation in consideration of the severity of the crime, the existence of an immediate safety threat, and degree of compliance from the subject. The policy lists five levels for assessing compliance.

“You match your use of force based on the threat that you’re perceiving,” Cummings explained.

According to the document, Level 1, compliant, means the officer maintains or gains compliance to desired directives via options of tradition, time, communication skills, etc. On the other end of the spectrum, Level 5, assaultive, means the officer could conclude that death or great bodily harm may be inflicted as a result of the subject’s actions.

“These issues are extremely uncommon in our department,” Leighton said. “For the most part, our officers use their best judgment, especially with the COVID-19 issues.”

Leighton said he personally made the two most recent arrests for the Northfield Police Department. One, last week, involved a person who was charged with several counts of rape. Prior to that, another individual was arrested for indecent assault and battery on a Northfield resident.

According to Leighton, throughout the last 33 years, more officers have sustained injuries while making an arrest than have been accused of excessive use of force or injuring an arrested individual.

“In cases where we have to make arrests we do, but the majority of our criminal prosecutions are done through summonses,” Leighton said. “That party receives a summons to court and they’re never taken into custody, so issues of force are avoided.”

Cummings mentioned the May 25 death of George Floyd, which sparked national conversations regarding municipal police departments and use-of-force policies. Cummings said he is interested in suggesting ways for officers to intervene in or deescalate scenarios where they witness another officer using excessive force. He said the policy is well-written, but an open conversation with officers to share examples of when to intervene could be beneficial.

“I know, given almost 20 years of experience I have on the job, I never had to intervene with another officer using excessive force,” Cummings noted. “It’s like uncharted territory for a lot of people.”

According to Leighton, officers are annually required to attend 40 hours of instruction, which usually includes a use-of-force segment. However, because of the pandemic, the training has been suspended.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.



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