The Anchorage Assembly is considering placing the police department’s use of force policies into city ordinance to promote consistency and transparency, although police officials oppose the move.
The proposal, sponsored by Assembly member Meg Zaletel, would place the department’s policies into municipal code, which would require any changes to go through the Assembly and a public hearing before they can become part of the code. The process would give the public a chance to comment and see what’s happening with the department’s use of force policy. Many portions of the proposal mirror existing policies in the department’s use of force.
The proposed ordinance would codify police policy that prohibits officers from firing warning shots, shooting at moving vehicles, firing shots when bystanders are near, drawing and aiming weapons when deadly force is not authorized, using weapons against animals, using chokeholds or vascular restraints, or using deadly force against a person in handcuffs.
Zalatel said the ordinance is intended to “codify the policies and procedures so that if a change in the future was to be made it would be subject to the public process.”
Celeste Hodge Growden, president and CEO of the Alaska Black Caucus, said during Monday’s meeting that the police department would be more transparent and better able to serve and communicate with the community if more data about use of force was publicly available.
“What’s wrong with being under a microscope? What’s wrong with having the community know what’s happening and to take another look at what’s happening within the police department? After all, the police department is part of this community and we are part of this community, as well,” she said.
Anchorage police made their polices and procedures manual available to the public last month on the department website. Chief Justin Doll said the policies had previously been available but had not been put back on the website after they were updated. Proponents of the ordinance said it would keep the use of force policies in public view even if a future police chief decides to take all department policies offline.
Doll described the department’s polices and procedures as a living document that is frequently changed and updated. Anchorage police recently removed a section of the use of force policy that previously allowed officers to use vascular restraints -- the same type of hold that a Minneapolis police officer used to kill George Floyd several months earlier. Doll said the department heard from the public that the policy was not acceptable and he believes officers have technology and skills to use other restraint tactics.
Doll said during the meeting that he worries that putting police policies in municipal code would remove urgency and flexibility to make changes because it could take months or longer for changes to go through the Assembly process.
The current police policies encompass many of the same ideas as the Assembly’s proposal but Doll said the existing policy is worded to offer more flexibility to account for extenuating situations that can’t be predicted. He said police operate in extremely stressful and unpredictable environments and each situation is unique, which means policies need to account for variations in response when it’s necessary.
“It’s difficult to write something like this if you’re not a subject matter expert,” he said. “... The (Assembly) draft actually contains sweeping changes to the way that we do business on a daily basis that I think are unintended. It’s a good example of why having a legislative body try to create operational guidelines for frontline staff is really challenging and difficult.”
Doll also took issue with a portion of the proposed ordinance which would restrict officers’ ability to use guns on animals. He said would limit the ability for police to protect the public from a dangerous moose or bear and could also stop them from making a humane decision to shoot the animal when it’s severely injured.
“We work and we live in the gray area, that’s what we tell all of our police officers,” said Sgt. Jeremy Conklin, president of the Anchorage Police Department Employee’s Association. “Very rarely in police work are we going to say ‘never’ or ‘always,’ because we’re dealing with humans, often in a very usually emotionally charged situation, and our officers are humans, as well. ... When we legislate discretion away from our police officers, that in the end of the day hampers our ability to keep the public safe and to keep our officers safe.”
The proposal will likely undergo additional changes before the Aug. 25 public hearing, said Assembly member Meg Zaletel, who sponsored the ordinance.