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Mississippi Capitol Police, under fire for shootings, are rewriting rules on force


Mar 3, 2023

JACKSON, Mississippi — Mississippi Capitol Police, who have shot four people since they began patrolling parts of Jackson last summer, will soon adopt an updated use-of-force policy that better reflects modern standards and the expanded role of law enforcement. agency, a state official said Thursday.

The Capitol Police have not changed their policy manual since 2006, when the department was primarily responsible for providing security for government buildings. The current manual also predates a decade-long reform movement that sparked changes in police departments across the country, such as banning chokeholds and requiring officers to use de-escalation techniques.

Sean Tindell, commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Capitol Police, said the agency has been working on updating its policies for months. Tindell said he was under the impression that some new policies had already gone into effect.

But after NBC News received heavily redacted copies of the agency use of force and car chase policies through a public records request, and asked why those policies had not been updated since 2006, Tindell said he asked staff for an update. She said the new versions of those policies would be enacted «very soon, probably within the next week or so.»

“Times have changed and expectations have changed, so we needed to review and update those policies anyway,” Tindell said.

The updated use-of-force policy will include more restrictions on the use of chokeholds, Tindell said. He declined to discuss any other changes to that policy, saying he had not yet compared the two documents closely. The revisions are part of a broader effort to update the policies of the 11 divisions of the Department of Public Safety, which also oversees the Highway Patrol, the Bureau of Narcotics and the Bureau of Investigations, Tindell said.

“Would it have been better to have all that updated in the first month of my term as commissioner? Absolutely. Is that practical? I do not think. But it is what it is,» said Tindell, who took office in 2020. «And we’re dealing with that, and trying to update and revise all those policies and with certain minimum standards.»

The updates will come at a time of intense scrutiny of the Capitol Police, which have been given new powers to patrol parts of Jackson in 2021 to help the capital city deal with a surge in murder. The Capitol Police added patrol cars and a street crime unit last summer. Since then, officers have been involved in four shootings.

In one of them, a 25-year-old father of two was shot in the head during what police described as a response to a traffic violation. In another, a 49-year-old woman was struck in the arm by an officer’s bullet during a chase that police say began with officers’ attempts to stop an allegedly stolen car. Citing pending investigations, the agency has released no information explaining how or why most of the shootings occurred, leaving the public and the families of those who were injured or killed largely in the dark.

The Mississippi Capitol Police do not require their officers to wear body cameras, a standard piece of equipment for American law enforcement that allows for a deeper understanding of officers’ use of force. (Tindell has said that the agency requested the budget to buy cameras, but has received no funding.) The department also operates outside of city control, reporting to Tindell, who was appointed by the governor.

For now, the 17-year-old policy manual that governed the behavior of the Capitol Police at the time of those shootings remains in place and largely secret. Unlike many law enforcement agencies, the Mississippi Capitol Police does not post its policy manual online and has yet to release a full copy in response to NBC News’ public records request.

The redacted chapters on use of force and car chases provided by the agency concealed many of the permitted methods and situations. For example, the use of force policy includes some guidelines for when deadly force may be used, but with the wordings it is impossible to know if officers are required to try to de-escalate encounters first.

Five experts, including a criminologist, the head of a police investigative organization and two former police commanders, said the wordings were unusual and could undermine the Capitol Police’s transparency with the public, which is crucial to building trust and support.

“It amazes me that someone is still writing parts of their manual,” said Chris Burbank, a former Salt Lake City police chief and now vice president of the Center for Policing Equity, which helps police departments find ways to reduce the use of force. . “Occasionally you see covert operations written up. But this is not ‘Serpico’. Use of force policy wording in this day and age, that’s archaic. These are the rules by which a police officer can use force against the public. Shouldn’t the public know that?»

Charles Taylor, executive director of the Mississippi State Conference NAACP, said police rules on deadly force must be held to the highest levels of transparency. The Capitol Police are not doing that because they answer to state officials, not local ones, he said.

“The policy of this police force is not to be transparent, and that’s what we’ve seen,” Taylor said. «I’m terrified of what that looks like.»

Tindell said redactions were necessary in some cases to prevent criminals from using the information to their advantage. But after seeing the amount of redaction in the policies provided to NBC News, Tindell said he told his staff that he would consider less redaction in the future.

“Transparency is very important and we are going to be more transparent,” Tindell said. “Sometimes it takes time to change the policies and mindset of how things are done. I want the public to feel that we are transparent and I want to be transparent because it makes us better and creates trust and responsibility.»

Concerns about the transparency and accountability of the Capitol Police are rising as the Republican-controlled, majority-white Mississippi Legislature considers giving the agency the power to patrol a broader swath of Jackson, which is run by Democrats and has a predominantly black audience. The city’s mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, called the proposal to expand the reach of the Capitol Police an «obvious attack on black leadership.» Lawmakers have until March 8 to decide whether to approve the legislation.

NBC News also requested the Jackson Police Department’s use-of-force policy, but the city has yet to provide the document.

Despite being heavily redacted, the Capitol Police guidelines contained elements that raised questions among some of the experts who reviewed them for NBC News.

One is a reference in the use-of-force policy to a «lateral neck vascular restraint.» Burbank said that tactic is a chokehold, which many departments have banned in recent years. But the redactions make it impossible to know if or how Capitol Police officers can use the hold.

Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina, was one of several experts pointing out what appeared to be inconsistent directives in the Capitol Police. policy on vehicle pursuits. The policy reads: “Vehicle pursuits by state capitol police officers are prohibited.” But the policy goes on to say that officers should consider whether to engage in a car chase by using a «chase decision matrix» that ranks the severity of the crime being committed. That matrix is ​​redacted.

«That’s confusing,» Alpert said. «That is silly language from someone who is not a good lawyer.»

Tindell recognized that the policy was problematic. The updated policy will clearly outline the conditions under which officers can engage in a car chase, he said.

A court has ordered at least one police department to release an unredacted version of its use-of-force policy.

In Michigan, a member of the local League of Women Voters has taken the police department in Sault Ste. Marie to court after the agency shared only a redacted copy of its use-of-force policy, saying a full version would put endangering the safety of officers. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Michigan Press Association joined in support. Last week, the Michigan State Court of Appeals ruled that the police department was wrong and ordered to be released the unredacted version.

“There is public interest in knowing the degree of force and the tactics that law enforcement officers are authorized to use,” said Stephen van Stempvoort, an attorney who represented the ACLU of Michigan and the Michigan Press Association. «It’s better for everyone.»

Jon Schuppe reported from New York City; Bracey Harris reported from Jackson, Mississippi.