Wall Street Journal
Upd. Oct. 1, 2015 8:40 p.m

NYPD Rolls Out New Use-of-Force Rules

Changes come as police agencies across the country grapple with complaint about arrest tactics


With police officers around the nation facing increased scrutiny over excessive force, the New York Police Department on Thursday laid out new guidelines for physical encounters with the public, as well as a new system for documenting them.

The widespread changes were announced as the inspector general of the NYPD issued a report criticizing the department’s handling of excessive-force complaints, saying the agency has a culture in which officers aren’t always held accountable for aggressive arrest tactics.

While city officials said the changes had been in the works for months, the overhaul comes in the wake of high-profile videotaped incidents including the 2014 killing of Eric Garner, who died after being put in a chokehold, and the recent mistaken arrest of retired tennis star James Blake, who was tackled outside a Midtown hotel.

“We are one of the few in government that have the power, the authority to take a life, to take people into custody, to deprive them of their liberty,” said Police Commissioner William Bratton. “So that sanctity of life, that respect for life has to be paramount in any police organization.”

The new policies will mandate that every instance of force, no matter how small, be documented on a single use-of-force form, said Chief Kevin Ward, Mr. Bratton’s chief of staff. This way, he said, data from incidents can be analyzed and officers at the scene can be held accountable if they don’t report that force was used—an issue raised in the case of Mr. Blake, whose wrongful arrest wasn’t recorded, officials have said.

“If somebody sees excessive force, there’s going to be a duty to intervene in that excessive force,” said Chief Ward. “If an officer is using excessive force, the other officers have to prevent him, stop him, pull him away from that situation and then report it.”

Beyond reporting incidents, the NYPD will retool its Patrol Guide to define and provide guidelines for using force that is other than “deadly”—currently the only kind of force specifically addressed.

Guidelines will be provided for de-escalating situations, for instance, instructing officers to wait for backup before detaining an emotionally disturbed person or warning suspects that they could face additional charges if they resist arrest before using even a Taser or pepper spray.

“A lot of times it’s been shown that if you tell somebody you’re gonna charge them with additional charges, you’re going to use some sort of less-than-lethal [force], we get voluntary compliance,” Chief Ward said. “This has been in our training but now we’re putting it in our procedures.”

Making sure the policies are enforced will fall to the newly created force investigation division, a 54-person team that will do “exhaustive, centralized” investigations into force used by officers, Mr. Bratton said.

The changes were greeted with trepidation byPatrick Lynch, president of the NYPD union that represents police officers. “No amount of new training or additional paperwork will make necessary force that is lawful and properly used by police officers acceptable to those who want to return to the hands-off, reactive policing strategies that sent crime soaring in the past,” he said.

Chris Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union called the changes a “good first step” but said his group wanted to see a better training program in place and data available to the public.

The announced changes answered many of the complaints raised in Thursday’s report by the NYPD inspector general, a watchdog set up to take an independent look at the agency’s practices and policies.

The report said investigators determined that the lack of definition for force left many officers without guidance as to what should be reported. Officers also didn’t properly document incidents of force, and, in some instances, denied the use of force in instances that were substantiated by the independent Civilian Complaint Review Board, according to the report.

“Clearly when you look at what other police departments are doing, including the Los Angeles Police Department, the Seattle police department, they have modern, state-of-the-art use of force policies,” said Philip Eure, the inspector general. “NYPD was living, a little bit, in the dark ages in respect to its use of force policies.”

Citizens Union, a good-government group, called into question the timing of the NYPD’s announcement just hours ahead of the release of the inspector general’s report, saying the situation hinted at a “game of dueling brinkmanship as opposed to collaboration.”

But Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ran for office on a platform of addressing aggressive police tactics, praised the overhaul. He said on a radio program that the city will record and analyze force data to “figure out what works, what could be changed, what could be made better.”

The NYPD’s changes come days after James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, appealed to law-enforcement agencies to provide more reliable figures about the use of deadly force.

In retooling its guidelines, the department looked to its 33-year-old firearms discharge policies as a guide, Mr. Ward said. The policy was instituted in a year in which 47 officers were shot, including 12 who were killed.

Since the department began scrutinizing all instances in which an officer fired a service weapon, the number of incidents has dropped from 994 in 1972 to 79 in 2014, the lowest since the department began keeping statistics.

—Mark Morales contributed to this article.

Write to Pervaiz Shallwani at pervaiz.shallwani@wsj.com