Like police officers everywhere, members of the Keene Police Department are authorized to use physical force against civilians when the circumstances call for it.
So what types of force can they use and when? The city won’t say.
In response to a public-records request, Keene provided The Sentinel with its 20-page policy on use of force by officers. But the city attorney’s office redacted significant portions of the document, including all references to the specific types of force that officers might use — ranging from relatively gentle to potentially deadly — and the weapons they are allowed to carry.
City Attorney Thomas P. Mullins justified the redactions as necessary to prevent disclosures that could help people circumvent the law or put the safety of officers and suspects at risk.
A redacted version of the Keene Police Department's use-of-force policy, as provided to The Sentinel in response to a records request.
The Sentinel requested the policy after an Oct. 31 incident at Keene High School in which a Keene police officer who works at the school, Joshua N. English, was recorded on video tackling a 15-year-old student who was walking away from him. According to English’s written account, the teenager — whom English accused of vaping — refused to identify himself or comply with the officer’s orders and tried to leave the bathroom. When standing in the student’s way and then grabbing his wrist did not work, English wrote, he took the teenager down from behind.
Keene Police Chief Steven Russo said in a Nov. 4 statement that English’s use of force “was determined to be within KPD policy and procedure.”
It’s hard for the public to assess such claims when key parts of the relevant policy are kept hidden, said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, a transparency advocacy group.
“It’s really difficult to know if police are acting reasonably when it comes to the use of force if we don’t know what their policies are,” he said. (Disclosure: This reporter participated in a NEFAC-organized training institute last year.)
Keene’s use-of-force policy says officers can use non-deadly force — actions that do not risk death or serious injury — when needed to arrest someone, to prevent someone from escaping or to defend themselves.
The policy states that “escalation of force should occur only when lesser levels of force have been tried and failed without gaining compliance, or the officer reasonably believes such lesser levels of force would be inappropriate given the circumstances.”
It lays out three levels of force, starting with “controlling techniques,” used when someone’s behavior “merely delays or hinders the arrest.” Officers can use “defensive tactics” — those likely to cause injury — when they believe a suspect is about to hurt someone or is resisting to a degree that could cause an injury. Actions likely to result in death or serious injury, meanwhile, are reserved for situations that seriously threaten someone’s life or safety.
To illustrate, the policy lists more than 20 types of physical force available to officers, apparently sorted by the level of force. The city redacted the entire list.
The following section governs the “proportionate application” of force. The city blacked out most or all of three paragraphs in that section. Their contents are not clear from context.
The two lengthy portions of the policy that deal with weaponry were also largely redacted, including all references to specific weapons that police officers in Keene carry.
In another section, about medical aid, the city appears to have omitted a reference to a hypothetical injury or ailment someone in police custody could suffer. “Officers shall initiate immediate medical attention when a detainee significantly suffers [redacted],” one line reads.
(In response to a separate records request, the city released a form that does list specific actions an officer might take — including “hand tactics” like a wrist lock, pressure point or ground fight and uses of pepper spray, batons and firearms — but does not specify when each would be appropriate to use.)
City officials would not name the specific concerns that led them to redact the use-of-force policy, despite repeated requests from The Sentinel.
In an email, Mullins said the city redacted “specific techniques or guidance” that, if revealed, “could allow an individual to circumvent the use of the force and apprehension, or could endanger the life and safety of the officer or the suspect.”
He declined to elaborate, referring a reporter to City Manager Elizabeth A. Dragon.
In an emailed statement, Dragon said disclosing use-of-force techniques and procedures “could assist individuals in taking steps to counter the necessary use of force in an effort to escape detention, and which may result in an unnecessary escalation of the force required for the officer to safely control the situation, thereby endangering the safety of all of the participants and possibly third parties.”
Asked what particular “steps” the city fears a person could take based on the information in the policy — and whether that has happened anywhere else — Dragon declined to answer.
“I don’t think I have any more information I can offer,” she wrote.
As for the redactions to the medical section, she wrote that “the description of the aid to be administered would disclose the specific use of force technique used that necessitated the aid in the first instance.”
Police Chief Steven Russo did not respond to requests for comment.