Bloomington-Normal police leaders say many of the reforms being proposed nationally in the wake of George Floyd’s death have already happened here, including a ban on chokeholds and increased emphasis on de-escalation training.
In interviews with WGLT, the police leaders stressed that their officers are taught only to use force in response to aggression or resistance, and they described the accountability measures in place to track when officers use force and identify someone who goes too far.
“We are not perfect. We are human beings. We will err just like everyone,” said Bloomington Police Chief Dan Donath. “The difference is, how do you respond in those situations? Do you own it? Or do you try to dance around it and talk your way out of it? A lot of people in our society today want to shift the blame for their own actions and their own words. … And then nobody’s taking ownership. We will take ownership. We’re not going to try and hide from something.”
At BPD, use of force is called “response to aggression.” What officers can and can’t do is guided by the department’s 12-page Response to Aggression policy. Officers are told to match up a person’s “level of resistance” with a proportional “level of control,” from verbal noncompliance all the way up to active aggression involving deadly force.
If an officer needs to control someone, the goal is to act quickly to avoid long, drawn-out fights, said Tim Power, an administrative sergeant who helps lead training at BPD.
“A lot of our training comes down to handcuffing, because statistically that’s where a lot of our resistance is going to happen,” Power said. “We’ve taken their civil liberties away or are detaining somebody at that point. That’s where we focus a lot of our training.”
After any response to aggression, an officer must file a report—nicknamed a “Blue Team,” for the software used to do it—which is reviewed by his or her shift sergeant, then the shift lieutenant, and potentially others, said Assistant Chief Chad Wamsley, who oversees BPD’s Office of Professional Standards. Included is any footage available from body-worn cameras, dashboard cameras, and other sources, he said.
“There are many layers to it. There’s a lot of documentation that goes into when somebody has to use force,” said Power.
Supervisors are likely to notice any troubling behaviors based on those individual incident reports, Wamsley and Power said. But the tracking system can also automatically flag officers who have 10 or more Blue Team entries within a 12-month period, in case an officer changes shifts and breaks continuity of supervision, Donath said.
Donath said it’s “pretty rare” for a response-to-aggression review to conclude that an officer used excessive force. During an interview, he and Wamsley struggled to think of an example.
“When we do have to use some type of control tactic, it will never be pretty,” Donath said. “This isn’t synchronized swimming. This isn’t ballet. These are people that are trying to either hurt you or get away from you. And that will never be pretty. People should realize that.”
Normal Police’s use of force
The Normal Police Department’s approach is similar. It tracks “response to resistance” incidents and reviews them up the command chain.
NPD averages between 50 and 80 incidents per year of an officer using force above standard handcuffing, said Chief Rick Bleichner. Those incidents are a small percentage of the 8,500 to 12,000 incidents each year involving police enforcement action of some kind, he said. (The department in 2017 greatly expanded the types of incidents that required officers to file a response-to-resistance report. That year, the number of incidents jumped from 17 to 83.)
In 2019, half of the 50 responses to resistance involved an officer’s use of physical force, like their hands, fists, or feet, according to an annual report prepared by NPD. Another 19 were a displayed firearm. Five Tasers were displayed. Twenty-eight of the 50 involved a black person allegedly showing resistance, according to the report.
All were considered justified responses internally.
“We prefer to catch things small,” Bleichner said. “We look for opportunities when maybe something was handled within our policy, but there are opportunities for improvement or a teaching moment. Things happen quickly in tense situations. Hectic, at best, at times.”
Since Floyd's death, a flashpoint in the debate over police reform has been the push to ban chokeholds nationwide. Advocates believe enshrining a ban into law will deter police violence. President Trump on Tuesday issued an executive order that, in part, calls for police departments to ban the use of chokeholds except when an officer feels his or her life is endangered.
Illinois law already prohibits the use of a chokehold unless deadly force is justified. That means officers are not allowed to use chokeholds as a control tactic in either Bloomington or Normal police departments, officials said. At BPD, officers are shown certain ways to apply a vascular neck restraint, but that can only be used in a deadly-force situation, Power said.
“It’s only as if I was using lethal force, like using my pistol. It’s that level,” Donath said.
A chokehold ban is no panacea. They were banned from regular use in New York in 1993, for example, yet Eric Garner was still choked to death by a police officer over three decades later.
Meanwhile, both Twin City police departments also say they already require their officers to go through various forms of de-escalation training. A commitment to such training is one of the “10 principles” agreed to by the NAACP and Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police in 2018. The BPD and NPD also signed on.
In addition to those internal reviews, an officer’s use of force could also be called into question by a member of the public who files a formal complaint.
In Normal, two of the 22 complaints received in 2019 were related to allegations of excessive force. In both instances, the officers were determined to have acted properly. In Bloomington there were 11 complaints in total in 2019, including three involving allegations of excessive force. Those complaints were also exonerated.
In Bloomington, those unhappy with the resolution of their complaint can ask the Public Safety and Community Relations Board (PSCRB) to review their case. Since forming in 2017 the PSCRB has examined two cases and determined BPD handled both reviews appropriately, said board chair Art Taylor. The PSCRB did make a policy recommendation stemming from the second case, Taylor said. That recommendation was incorporated into BPD’s policy on voiding or dismissing an Illinois uniform traffic citation, said Wamsley.
While it’s only handled the two cases, Taylor said the PSCRB has helped facilitate an important dialogue between the community and police.
“The PSCRB is still in its infancy in Bloomington. But we’ve established ourselves as a board that’s ready, willing, and able to assist in dialogue, forums, and communication between interested parties to help keep the community inoculated so that we don’t have the occurrences of police violence and community uprisings (here),” Taylor said.
Normal does not have a similar civilian-led police advisory board. The town considered one around the same Bloomington leaders created the PSCRB. Since then, the town’s discussion has evolved into the possible creation of a new board or commission that would look at broader culture issues within Normal, not just policing or complaints, Bleichner said.
That work is still ongoing. An invited group convened in January to discuss the scope of such a board and next steps, with the goal of meeting on a quarterly basis, said Normal City Manager Pam Reece. “Discussion in January pertained to how we can better engage with the minority community, how we can build relationships and trust, and what data or reports are useful to guide discussion and increase engagement,” Reece said via email.
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