Video circulated Thursday on social media and news sites of police officers in Buffalo, New York, pushing a protester to the ground. As the man lay motionless with blood pooling around his head, footage showed officers walking by him before others stopped to render aid.
The police department at first said the protester had tripped, but revised its statement after video surfaced.
For some, the images of officers standing by as the man was injured felt reminiscent of the video of George Floyd, the Minnesota man whose death had sparked protests nationwide. Floyd died after being held down by the neck by a police officer while other officers watched.
Law enforcement agencies in the Tampa Bay area say officers are supposed to step in and report officers when they see excessive or inappropriate force being used. But a police reform advocacy group has said neither the Tampa nor St. Petersburg police departments had policies requiring officers to intervene.
And even with the strictest policies in place, it’s complicated, said Lucy Lang, director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Lang said there’s a distinction between a duty to report inappropriate behavior by a fellow officer and a proactive duty to intervene. She said policies and training are important, but even more it’s about the culture of an organization.
“That the duty to report is vital, but a lot of police departments have that as a formal policy and as a result of a prevailing culture may not create an environment that fosters people following that policy,” Lang said.
Police reform group Campaign Zero has launched an initiative called “8 Can’t Wait”, which calls for law enforcement agencies to enact eight policies it says are proven to curtail police violence. One proposed policy is the requirement that officers step in to stop excessive force used by other officers and report those incidents immediately to a supervisor.
In recent days, law enforcement agencies in places like Dallas and Charlotte have said they are adding language to specifically spell out a requirement to intervene in instances of excessive force by a fellow officer.
On Friday, the city of Minneapolis agreed to ban the use of choke holds by police and to require officers to report and intervene if they see instances of unauthorized use of force.
A 2016 study by the Campaign Zero organization said that the average police department it had reviewed had adopted only three out of the eight policies it is recommending. On its website, it flags the Tampa and St. Petersburg police departments for not having policies that require officers to intervene.
In addition to the duty to report, the initiative is pushing for a ban on choke holds and strangle holds, a requirement that officers provide warning before shooting, a ban on shooting at moving vehicles, requirements for de-escalation and for officers to exhaust all other means before shooting, requiring all use of force be reported and having a continuum of the type of force allowed in different situations.
On Friday, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor — who previously served as the Tampa police chief — said Tampa actually has had all eight of the recommended policies in place for years.
On the city’s website, there are now links to policies tied to each of the eight initiatives. Regarding the duty to intervene, city officials pointed to a police department guideline that says that “department employees having knowledge of a violation of the departmental regulations shall report the violation to their immediate supervisor.”
Other local law enforcement agencies say they have existing policies that require officers to intervene and report inappropriate use of force by a colleague.
Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Amanda Granit asked the Times to submit a public records request to review its policies. Although the Times did make the request, no policy was provided Friday. But Granit said that if the office ever found that a deputy had seen another deputy do something wrong and didn’t stop it or report it, they would be fired.
“You’re just as accountable for your inaction as your action in that situation,” Granit said.
When asked for its policies on what officers should do if they see a colleague using unauthorized force, the St. Petersburg Police Department pointed the Times to its website, where it had posted snippets of its regulations that it said were in place for each of the eight points. The department’s site also included an image of a chart similar to one on the 8 Can’t Wait website, but with the police department’s image showing it as meeting each of the eight points.
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office provided the Times with a policy on standards of conduct that says in part that “members knowing of other members violating laws, ordinances, rules, or orders of the agency shall report such violations in writing to their immediate supervisor of the Administrative Investigation Division.”
In response to a question about whether it has any policies requiring a deputy to intervene in an instance of excessive force, Pinellas sheriff spokesman Travis Sibley said the office was putting together a comprehensive document to address inquiries about the 8 Can’t Wait campaign. He said many of the policy changes called for already exist.
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office provided policies on use of force and standards of conduct. It said it does not have a specific section in its general order requiring officers to intervene in an excessive-force situation, but said it’s covered in several subsections that deal with things like reporting violations of department orders, taking suitable action and taking appropriate action to render assistance.
“It is vital we have deputies report a use of force or excessive use of force that doesn’t meet our guidelines,” said spokeswoman Amanda Hunter. “We always tell in training that your most important tool you carry with you is your word.”