LEE'S SUMMIT, Mo. — Jackson County Sheriff's deputies now have a moral and legal obligation to intervene when someone is using excessive force, whether it’s physical or verbal.
That was the aim of Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forte's new Duty to Intervene policy, which went into effect on Jan. 1.
“It was obvious to me pretty much instantaneously what this was in reference to,” Jackson County Sheriff's Sgt. Douglas Blodgett said.
The U.S. was gripped by protests and racial tension last summer after ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd's neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds on May 25 during his arrest for suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill.
Floyd repeatedly told Chauvin and the three other officers who were on the scene and witnessed the arrest that he couldn't breathe. None of the other officers intervened and Floyd died.
Jackson County's Duty to Intervene policy makes it clear to deputies with the sheriff's office that they must intervene in such circumstances.
Sheriff Forte said that can look like anything from “someone stepping in, somebody can actually physically pull someone off of someone ... someone could step in and separate them by hand, someone could use their voice authority and say, 'Hey, that’s enough; let’s stop.' It can range from a voice command to someone to actually physically pulling someone off someone.”
It's a policy Blodgett said he understands.
“We’re in this profession to save lives, to safeguard life, and when you hear a grown man pleading the way (Floyd) did, at some point in time somebody’s got to say, 'Hey, we've got to do something,'" he said.
Blodgett hopes the new policy can also help instill or rebuild trust with Jackson County's citizens, reinforcing the idea that sheriff's deputies should protect and serve.
“The fracture or chasm, so to speak, between the police and the public has come to a point where we have to recognize, to some extent, the requests of the people to rebuild and regain that trust,” Blodgett added. “This gives us the opportunity and the avenue to say, 'Why don’t you back away? I’ll handle this for now.' No shame in it. No anything.”
But not everyone is thrilled with policy. Attorney Natasha Scruggs doesn't understand why a policy is required to prevent law enforcement from injuring members of the public.
“When you have a new policy, it’s kind of like a false sense of security like, 'Yes, y’all, we’ve solved it," she said. "When really you need to do the deep work. You have to do the committed, ongoing work on figuring out what is wrong, what is going on that the officers are not following the policies, specifically when it comes to Black people."
Forte pushed back on the idea that excessive force is a widespread problem among law enforcement.
“I think the majority of law-enforcement officials do what’s right," he said. "They would intervene without a policy. But I think, for me, it’s important to have a standalone policy and not be buried in another policy."
The Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department doesn't have a standalone policy, but Sgt. Jake Becchina said the duty to intervene is covered as part of the KCPD Code of Ethics and Rules of Conduct.
"While there is no new policy, there is an expectation to intervene,” Becchina said.
Scruggs argues that a policy alone won't be sufficient to change the relationship and dynamics between law enforcement and some communities they police, especially the Black community.
“If you think it takes 400 years to create this problem and then you think it’s going to take one policy to solve it, it’s not,” Scruggs said. “Somebody has to report it. We haven’t figured out why they aren’t reporting each other yet, you know what I’m saying? This only works if they start reporting it.”
The Duty to Intervene also includes a duty to "promptly report these observations" of use of excessive force to a supervisor. The incident will then be reviewed by a captain, a major and Forte to determine the proper course of action.
Deputies hope the policy also will help serve as an early warning detection system for things like job-related stress, post-traumatic stress and patters of behavior that should be flagged.