WTOC Investigates: What are police required to report about use of force investigations?

WTOC Investigates: What are police required to report about use of force investigations?

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Video of George Floyd’s death in police custody sparked nationwide protests, and a call for police reform when it comes to use of force.

In Savannah, a citizen-led task force appointed by the mayor is reviewing Savannah Police policies and processes. Data released to WTOC shows Savannah Police reviews hundreds of use of force complaints each year involving its own officers.

But the only cases available for public inspection are the ones where Savannah Police determined an officer violated policy.

Savannah Police has a policy and process for reviewing use of force complaints from citizens. It also requires officers to self-report.

Since Jan 1, 2016, internal affairs has sustained six use of force complaints involving officers, according to internal affairs records. That’s out of the more than 1,600 complaints reviewed about use of force.

Here’s a look at the numbers by year. In parenthesis are the cases sustained out of the total for each year:

  • 2016 – 273
  • 2017 – 457 (3)
  • 2018 – 359 (2)
  • 2019 – 346
  • 2020- 200 - (1)
    • Total 1,635 (6)

How does Savannah Police’s process stack up against other police departments? That’s tough to answer. There is no national or state law that requires police departments to track and report use of force cases.

“If we had all the data from every agency, we could give you a baseline. We could answer that question,” said John B. Edwards, executive director of the Peace Officers’ Association of Georgia. “It’s hard to compare apples to apples, but from the numbers you’ve given me and taken Savannah into context with other cities its size. It sounds like to me they’re doing a great job and staying on top of it.”

Edwards is a former sheriff’s deputy and made a career in law enforcement.

In his role with the POAG, he’s extensively studied the use of force issue and advocates on behalf of peace officers for more training, a better system to track these kinds of cases and more understanding from the public.

The fact that Savannah Police has its own tracking and reporting system speaks volumes, he said.

“What that tells me, is they’re ahead of the game. They are being very proactive.”

He explained, in general, how a police department’s ongoing review of use of force complaints is useful.

“When I was chief deputy, I wanted if an officer even had something that was borderline, I wanted them to write it down and make a report. Because if an officer reports even a marginal, borderline it gives me the opportunity upfront, the ability to vet it and see if it needs to go further or if it’s the end,” Edwards said.

One thing he stressed is there’s more than meets the eye when reviewing video that shows a use of force case.

“You have to look at the totality of the facts and circumstances - the whole picture,” he said. “The other thing I would say is people when they view use of force - it’s not pretty. The most legal, the most righteous, the most justified use of force is still not pretty. What the law is with use of force in our country is that it has to be reasonable under the facts and circumstances.”

Six Sustained Use of Force Complaints

An internal affairs review in 2017 by Savannah Police found the male officer violated four department policies, including non-deadly force.

Punishment was a written reprimand.

Two other cases reviewed by internal affairs also came with written reprimands for the officers involved.

A written reprimand for an officer who tackled a man as the man put up his hands and complied with the officer’s order to stop. The officer explained he did that because the man had history of evading police.

In a third case, internal affairs gave a written reprimand for an officer who hog tied a man in 2016 during a combative encounter that escalated from an unpaid bar tab and ended with the man’s refusal to cooperate once officers told him he was going to jail.

That kind of restraint is prohibited by department policy because “it’s been found to cause death or serious physical injury,” according the internal affairs report.

Internal affairs records show that same officer later received a demotion and precinct transfer after his involvement in a deadly use of force incident in 2017. The deadly force that involved an exchange in gunfire was justified, internal affairs noted.

The officer received the demotion for failing to maintain a secure police perimeter during an event that could have put other lives in danger, according to an internal affairs report. The officer resigned from Savannah Police about two weeks later, according employment records kept by Georgia POST.

Two of the six sustained use of force cases resulted in termination, according to records provided by Savannah Police.

In 2018, Savannah Police terminated two officers after internal affairs determined excessive force involving a woman in custody. She became uncooperative while in the back of a patrol car and began kicking the interior of the car as officers tried to get her out of the vehicle.

Police officers dragged her from the vehicle in the process. The officers did not report the incident to their supervisors, according to internal affairs.

“The actions of both employees showed a lack of professionalism and civility toward citizens that will mark a shadow upon the police department and law enforcement everywhere,” according to the internal affairs report.

A criminal case involving the woman is pending, so Savannah Police withheld body camera footage to comply with the state open records law.

Last month, Savannah Police fired the two officers for use of force. The internal affairs report which would explain in detail about which policies the officers violated and the police body camera footage are being withheld.

The case is expected to go to a grand jury later this month.

All of the use of force complaints are reviewed internally - unless there is an officer-involved shooting. Those cases go to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for review.

There is a citizen led task force commissioned by the mayor has access to information that the public does not. When that review is over, Mayor Van Johnson has said the task force’s findings will be made public along with recommendations.

WTOC will report those findings.

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