The Portland Police Department bars the use of chokeholds, neck restraints and other tactics that might cut off someone’s ability to breathe and classifies such techniques as deadly force, according to the department’s use-of-force policy.

The department released a copy of the policy last week as millions of anti-racism protesters flooded city streets across the country and around the world, demanding that police agencies be defunded and reformed, and that police stop killing people, especially people of color.

The unrest was sparked by the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in police custody on Memorial Day after three officers knelt on his body as he lay facedown on the pavement, begging for air. Former officer Derek Chauvin, who is white, was captured on tape pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes before Floyd slowly stopped talking and lost consciousness. When paramedics arrived, he did not have a pulse, and was pronounced dead a short time later at a nearby hospital. All four officers involved in the arrest now face charges, including a second degree murder charge against Chauvin.

Protests across the country have largely remained peaceful, but flares of violence and looting have been met in some places with a swift crackdown by police, who have beat demonstrators with batons, fired rubber bullets and pepper balls at them and deployed irritants such as tear gas and pepper spray. Portland demonstrations have been mostly peaceful, but police used riot gear and pepper spray after two protests became violent and several businesses suffered burglaries, smashed glass and other damage.

Police departments across the country are re-evaluating their use-of-force policies after Floyd’s death, and some departments have since banned maneuvers designed to cut off oxygen to someone’s brain and render them unconscious. Minneapolis allowed the use of the neck restraints by police until it also banned them on Friday.

Police officers in Minneapolis had used the technique 237 times, and rendered 44 people unconscious with the neck restraint since the beginning of 2015, according to NBC News. 

Portland’s use-of-force policy was ratified in 2012 and last amended in 2017.  It’s unclear when chokeholds were banned or what prompted the change.

The city’s policy is currently undergoing a regular review by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy to ensure it meets minimum statewide requirements.

On Tuesday, the Portland City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee will begin a review of the police department’s policies, including those that govern use of force, body cameras, crisis intervention and de-escalation, and implicit bias. The remote meeting will begin at 5:30 p.m., and councilors encouraged the public to participate online.

Portland Police Chief Frank Clark speaks during a June 3 press conference at Portland City Hall. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Unlike some departments around the country, the Portland Police Department is one of many in Maine that do not proactively publish their standard operating procedures for the public to read. The policy was released six days after the Portland Press Herald requested it on May 29. In contrast, Minneapolis publishes its policies, along with a database of complaints and discipline against officers.

“A choke hold, carotid hold, vascular neck restraint or other techniques (that) involve the application of pressure on a person’s throat, and/or restriction of the airway or blood circulation in the neck are prohibited, unless deadly force is justified,” Portland’s policy says.

Although U.S. Supreme Court precedent governs use of force at the highest level, each police department is left to develop its own policy language.

Chokeholds were banned by the New York Police Department in 1993 after a number of deaths. Chicago banned the practice in February, and Los Angeles has banned some form of choke techniques since 1982, except in situations that require deadly force.

In Maine, departments must meet minimum standards set out by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy’s model policy, which was approved by the academy’s board of trustees. The model policy does not directly address chokeholds as a restraint tactic, and it is not clear how many Maine police department have specific policies prohibiting the use of chokeholds or neck restraints. The state’s model policy does forbid the use of a baton to strike the head and neck area, except when deadly force is justified.

Police in riot gear form a line across Franklin Arterial on Tuesday night. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In general, the state’s minimum standards – as well as Portland’s policy – call for officers to preserve the sanctity of human life, and use the least amount of force necessary to complete a lawful police action that is proportional to the level and intensity of force they encounter from a member of the public. When officers meet resistance or aggression, they are permitted to use the force required until the resistance or threat stops.

In this way, the policy requires officers to constantly recalibrate and reassess the threats they face even in the midst of an aggressive or dangerous encounter to limit the risk to everyone involved.

Portland Police Chief Frank Clark joined the leaders of two labor unions representing officers in signing a letter saying they are disturbed by the death of a Minneapolis man after a police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes while he was handcuffed and face-down on the ground. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Portland Police Chief Frank Clark said last week that Portland officers are among the best trained in the state. Every Portland officer receives crisis intervention training and is taught de-escalation tactics, which are designed to avoid the use of force entirely.

The Portland policy also includes a section for “priority of life,” offering guidance for how officers should conduct themselves in prioritizing one life over another.

“The sanctity of human life is at the heart of everything this department does and is always our first consideration,” the Portland policy says, and emphasizes the importance of treating all people with dignity and respect.

“Whenever possible, no human life should be put at risk, including the person creating the situation, unless the risk is reasonable and necessary based on the totality of the circumstances known to the involved officers,” the policy says.

Police are trained to prioritize innocent people first, and then consider their own life. At the bottom of that list are “suicidal people” and “offenders,” according to the policy.

Clark said the provision has been renamed “safety priorities,” and is a theory in policing intended to reduce the overall risk during difficult situations.

“The concept is used, in part, to train police officers in the recognition that they must sometimes place their own life below that of another person,” Clark wrote in an email statement. “In other words they may need to place their life ‘on the line’ to protect a possible victim, witness or hostage, for instance.”

The portion about “offenders” or “suicidal people” refers to how police should not place themselves at jeopardy “if the person whose life is threatened is someone who created or is in control of a particular situation,” Clark wrote.

“An example would be an armed person who has barricaded themself and is threatening suicide,” Clark said. “Using the ‘safety priorities’ concept, the officer should not enter that barricaded space, as it could possibly create a sense of jeopardy and actually lead to an officer-involved application of deadly force. This is why the verbiage is in that section of policy that speaks to the sanctity of human life.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine was critical of the language used in that section.

“It’s shocking to see a police training manual that explicitly states whose lives should be prioritized over others, especially when these evaluations are left up to the subjectiveness and biases of police officers,” wrote ACLU of Maine Executive Director Alison Beyea.

“It’s especially disturbing to see people who are suicidal at the bottom of the list. Far too often we devalue the lives of people with mental illness. This problem is made worse because as a society we fail to put enough resources into mental health care, while on the other hand pouring money into law enforcement. If we truly value the sanctity of life we should stop funding police violence and instead put our resources into community supports like education and health care.”

A protester kneels in front of police officers in riot gear in front of the Portland police station late June 2. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Generally, use of force is grounded in state law and precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark 1989 ruling, Graham v. Connor, that set the stage for current rules today. That decision imposed a legal test to evaluate whether a use of force is justified, and judges the use of force on the totality of the circumstances known to an officer at the time of the use of force, and the rights of the person on whom the force is being used.

Many factors come into play, including severity of the suspected crime or offense; the level of resistance officers encounter; the risk that a person may attempt to flee or escape; and whether someone poses an imminent threat to police or others.

Judgments are made from the the perspective of a reasonable officer at the scene, rather than in hindsight, and recognize that police are forced to make split-second decisions in tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving circumstances, according to Portland police policy, which uses language that hews to the Supreme Court’s decision.

“It is the policy of the Portland Police Department to value and preserve human life,” the policy says. “Officers will employ force in the performance of their duties only when necessary, and only to the extent or degree necessary to accomplish a lawful objective.”

The Portland policy also imposes a duty on police officers to intervene at the earliest safe opportunity to prevent or stop the unreasonable use of force by another officer, and police are required to report such incidents immediately to a supervisor.

All uses of force above a certain threshold are reported and tracked separately so they can be evaluated by police supervisors and the chief.

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