In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, there’s an intense national focus on law enforcement and people have had a variety of reactions. Some people have chosen to protest or hold rallies. Some of our legislators have proposed new standards at both the state and national levels. I wanted to find out about our local police department’s policies and procedures, to see what we were doing here in Medfield.
So, I called our Chief of Police and we talked about it. I went to the station to read through a couple large binders of policies and procedures (they’re not online). I then obtained copies of several of those policies to study in more detail. I wasn’t allowed to have all of the documents I requested due to cited safety concerns.
In the process, I found out some things that I didn’t know. I’d bet many of my fellow residents don’t either, so I’m writing this letter to share them:
• The Medfield Police Department’s policies and procedures are being revised. Many of our policies dated back to 1995 and Chief Guerette has been working to update and revise them.
• Some of those changes are good. The old policies were inconsistent in some places and incomplete in others. Many of the changes serve to professionalize the policies. There are also topics which are more comprehensively addressed now like responding to civil rights complaints or dealing with gender and sexuality issues.
• The updates are facilitated by incorporating industry standard language. These recommendations come from places like the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association and legal consultants who specialize in serving law enforcement agencies.
• In the process, our policies are actually becoming more permissive of the use of force. For example, our old policies required that “an officer should exhaust every reasonable means of employing the minimum amount of force before escalating”. The new policies state that “officers should continuously evaluate the circumstances…with the intent of de-escalating to a lower force level.” There’s a world of difference between exhausting lower force options before using more and looking for opportunities to dial back after you’ve already used a higher level of force. That’s just one example among a number.
• Because these policies are written like legal documents, the devil is in the details. Language doesn’t necessarily mean what a casual reader might think. For example, residents might be surprised to know that “actively resisting arrest” includes almost any “body movement” like “turning away” from an officer. Under the new policies, that could justify getting pepper-sprayed or tazed.
• These policy revisions are happening with no substantive community input. The police union is consulted and the department’s lawyers. When I asked about community review, I was told by the Chief that the Board of Selectmen “technically” review the policies. When I asked what that meant practically, I was told that it means they get a copy.
• In fact, there is no concrete oversight of the police department by the town, when it comes to issues like use of force and discipline. Heaven forbid there ever were a problem, we might never know.
Whatever the Medfield Police Department does, is done in the name of the residents of the town. I believe we have a right and a responsibility to make sure that our policies and procedures reflect the values of the town, not just the priorities of the profession. And I think we have a duty to provide some level of oversight for the department.
We have boards or committees for so many things in this town: the schools, water and sewer, the dump, the pocket park between Nosh and Grog and Starbucks. Those are all worthy things and it’s not realistic for the Selectmen to be experts in everything. I think it’s time we had a group to engage with our police department and ensure that we have policies, training and oversight conducive to the kind of policing we want in our community. That board or committee could take the time to dig into the details and be privy to otherwise confidential information.
To be clear, this isn’t about vilifying the police. In my experience, most cops are decent regular people trying to do the job the right way. However, regular people aren’t infallible. They need guidance on what “the right way” is. This is especially true in low-frequency/high-stress situations like those where use of force would come into play. That’s where they will need to fall back on policies and training to make the right judgement calls in the moment.
They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Thank goodness we don’t have a big problem with use of force in Medfield, but even one tragic event would be too many. Let’s be out in front on this.