The much-needed attention being paid to the use of force by police departments nationwide these days prompts a close examination of departments’ policies and conduct. In situations where lives are literally at risk, transparency is the only course.
Recent reports by The Sentinel’s Paul Cuno-Booth have helped push open the door for public scrutiny of such policies in Keene and other region communities. Knowing how departments view the use of force — which can be anything from grabbing a suspect’s wrist to drawing, or even firing, a weapon — is key to oversight in how a community wants its law enforcement officials to act.
Just as important as knowing what officers are told to do, however, is knowing what they’re actually doing when out on patrol. The Keene police have, to their credit, been compiling and making public annual reports on officers’ use of force for the past several years.
A review of those reports indicates a troubling trend: The incidence of officers using force has been increasing for the past several years. In 2019, the number of calls in which officers used force rose by 32 percent, and the specific uses of force rose by 48 percent. (An officer must report each incidence of using force separately, even while responding to a single call.)
Keene police officers used force at least 206 times during 124 separate incidents in 2019, according to an annual report prepared by the police department. Those numbers are up from 140 documented uses of force and 94 incidents in 2018, which was up from 2017, when 71 incidents and 112 uses of force were reported.
For 2019, the 4 percent rise in the number of calls doesn’t begin to account for that kind of leap. Lt. Shane Maxfield, who compiled the report, noted better reporting of incidents by officers might account for some of the increase. That would mean, however, that in previous years, incidents were being incorrectly reported or underreported — not an ideal finding. He also said there were several incidents in 2019 in which officers were required to use force multiple times on multiple people, including one armed robbery call in which 18 use-of-force reports were generated.
Chief Steven Russo argues the use of force is dictated by the suspects’ actions, to which officers must respond appropriately. That paints a picture of more encounters between the Keene police and the public in which officers are backed into a corner, figuratively, and have to implement what is, by policy, their last resort. If viewed as a driver of the increases, the logical conclusion is that more people are willing to physically confront police officers. This, too, is a worrying scenario.
It’s also a handy rationale for defending officers’ conduct. We’ve seen again and again, nationwide, police officers often taking the offensive in using force in situations that could be dealt with otherwise, sometimes with deadly results. Whether to use force is a judgment call.
We expect Russo wasn’t offering a blanket justification for any use of force, but rather, noting a frequent contributor.
But during a period when many departments, including Keene’s, are emphasizing de-escalation techniques, the numbers ought to raise some eyebrows. Particularly the number of times Keene officers drew their guns or other weapons in 2019 — more than 80.
That we can parse these numbers is actually a sign that the department has been relatively open about them, which is good. The annual reports are lacking, though, in that they don’t cite which officers were more likely to use force, something department leaders are surely paying attention to themselves. As recent court rulings on internal police audits and investigations have made clear, the public has an obvious interest in knowing if some officers pose an increased risk, which could be gleaned from such reporting.
Even in a community not known for frequent police-public clashes, and in which the department is offering a degree of transparency, there is always room for improvement.