Elgin police report more minor use of force in 2016
When it comes to use of force, the Elgin Police Department methodically tracks officers' behavior and recently reviewed its policy based on recommendations by a national police research organization.
Force was used in 3.8 percent of arrests last year, or 145 times, compared to 2.8 percent, or 106 times, in 2015, with the number of arrests at more than 3,800 each year, Elgin police data shows. The majority of that was applying force to arms and wrists, followed by taking people to the ground to subdue them.
Overall "response to resistance" by officers, meaning both using force and showing force -- such as threatening to use a gun or Taser, or drawing one but not firing -- increased to 199 incidents in 2016 from 156 incidents in 2015.
Deputy Chief Bill Wolf said officers more meticulously documented minor uses of force in 2016, which accounts for some of the increase.
For example, it's common for people to yank back their arm when being handcuffed, which leads to officers applying some force in return, Wolf pointed out.
"Traditionally we have never called it 'use of force' because it's so minor," he said. "We are finding that officers more and more are ... erring on the side of compiling a form with the slightest little bit of resistance."
Officers used Tasers 9 percent less last year, data shows. They drew their handguns 21 times compared to 10 in 2015, but they pointed them at people fewer times. People were taken down to the ground 64 times each of the last two years.
Not many suburban departments track show of force by officers, Wolf said. This year, Elgin also started tracking the location of resistance incidents and the nature of the interaction between police and people, to gain an even better picture of any trends, he said.
Arrest-related injuries to people and officers were mostly minor and took place in less than 1 percent of arrests. There were four major injuries in the last two years: one officer suffered a broken finger and another a broken ankle, and a civilian suffered a broken rib and another a fractured pelvis.
A police committee reviews all use-of-force incidents in Elgin, and the top brass regularly analyze the overall response-to-resistance data, which is compiled quarterly, Wolf said. The data includes such detail as how many times officers first showed force, then used it, such as by threatening to fire a Taser and then firing it.
"We are really stressing to officers that just because the law allows you to use force, it doesn't mean you should," he said. "Every year there are little things we tweak -- whether it's in training, equipment or policies -- based on things we've seen."
It's especially significant that Taser use was down last year, even with more officers equipped with the weapons, Wolf said.
"Another positive is the fact our officers rarely use batons," he said. "It's potentially a good tool for certain situations, like extremely violent situations, but luckily our officers have been able to find other alternatives."
The last time an Elgin officer fired a gun at someone was 2012 when a prisoner escaped while being taken to court. The prisoner was struck and survived, and the officer agreed to resign.
Elgin police reviewed its use-of-force policy based on 30 recommendations for police departments by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, and found it already conformed to most of them, Wolf said.
One ensuing change was to explicitly prohibit officers from shooting at moving vehicles unless in extreme circumstances, such as a driver ramming into a crowd, he said. The last time an Elgin officer shot at a moving vehicle was more than 10 years ago, and only the vehicle was hit, Wolf said.
That particular policy has been controversial among some departments, research forum Executive Director Chuck Wexler said. The group believes police should always be prohibited from shooting at moving vehicles, unless drivers are using or threatening deadly force by means other than the vehicle itself, Wexler said. That policy was adopted by New York City police more than 40 years ago, he said.
Wexler also said he understands Elgin's and other departments' hesitation to go that far. "I do understand that departments are concerned about the potential terrorist kind of incidents."
Wexler praised Elgin's willingness to review its use-of-force policy. "They are a really forward-thinking department in making those kinds of changes," he said.
Many among the 18,000 or so police departments across the nation use the 1989 Supreme Court decision Graham v. Connor as the standard for use of force, Wexler said. The decision states officers should be held to a standard that is objectively reasonable, but departments should do more, he said.
"That is the floor, not the ceiling," he said, "and departments need to implement policy, training and tactics that go beyond."
The Elgin Police Department for years has offered de-escalation training, which became mandated Jan. 1 in Illinois, said Sgt. Jim Lalley, who conducts the training. These days, there is a big emphasis on verbal de-escalation, Lalley said.
The goal is for officers to respond to resistance with the lowest level of force necessary, especially when people are resisting passively. "It teaches how to communicate with somebody and talk them down to comply," Lalley said.
"Obviously if somebody is pointing a gun at you, you won't try de-escalation. But if someone doesn't want to get out of the car, instead of jumping to 100 and do pressure point control, you might want to take more time with de-escalation strategies."