Farmington police chief lauds department's new Force Investigation Unit
Steve Hebbe says unit helps identify issues, craft policy changes
- The Force Investigation Unit was launched in July 2018.
- It has standardized the process by which the department investigates each application of force by an officer.
- The unit is led by Lt. Guy Postlewait.
FARMINGTON — A new Farmington Police Department unit launched a year ago that investigates every use of force by an officer is having a positive impact on the agency in several respects, Chief Steve Hebbe says.
The launch of the Force Investigation Unit in July 2018 has standardized the process by which the department investigates each application of force by an officer, a procedure that until recently was much less formalized, with officers' supervisors approaching the task in markedly different ways. That meant the quality and quantity of information that resulted from those investigations varied widely, and that could make it difficult for Hebbe and his leadership team to spot trends, identify issues and implement changes.
"We have such a better idea of what we're doing, and we can make course corrections when we need to," he said.
Under the new system, the use-of-force investigation process includes an officer's immediate supervisor interviewing witnesses and subjects, taking photos and collecting private video surveillance. It also includes reviews of the officer's camera systems and use-of-force report. All that information is then reviewed by members of the unit to determine if that application of force was appropriate.
New, standardized reporting forms for the officer or officers involved in the application of force, as well as for witnessing officers and supervisors, are an important part of the new process, according to Lt. Guy Postlewait, who oversees the unit. The forms require the respondent to complete a series of questions regarding the nature of the incident, its severity, and how and why it unfolded the way it did.
Postlewait said the old process for compiling that information was much less formal, with most officers simply providing a free-form narrative account of what had taken place. Some provided detailed, step-by-step accounts, while others submitted reports that covered only the major developments. Hebbe went so far as to characterize those differences as "a wild disparity."
With the new forms, officers now know they will be required to answer the same specific questions each time, a list designed to address any potential question an investigator might have. The forms also include numerous comments sections allowing respondents to elaborate on their answers and provide context.
A member of the FIU team reviews each report, as well as the other data, evidence and video, and compare the incident to training standards and tactics, department policies, case law and U.S. industry standards, according to a written description of how the unit operates that was provided by department officials.
The reviewing sergeant determines if the use of force was within department policies. When that force application is deemed to have fallen outside those policies, the incident can be referred to the department's internal affairs unit for further action.
All that material is compiled into quarterly and annual reports that examine how often and under what circumstances applications of force are taking place in the department. Postlewait said the new system has greatly improved the accuracy of data reporting by officers and has allowed supervisors to catch trends on the street faster.
That has made it easier for the department's leadership to preempt any such trends that might lead to improprieties by officers, he said.
"Or the appearance of impropriety," Hebbe hastened to add.
Who's got one and who doesn't?
The use of FIUs seems to be a growing trend, and Hebbe said the U.S. Department of Justice cites their existence in its list of best practices for police departments across the country. But their use is still a rarity in this region, with the chief saying the Farmington FIU is the first of its kind in the Four Corners.
The Farmington unit also appears to be very much the exception in New Mexico. Spokesmen for the Albuquerque and Santa Fe police departments – both of which are much bigger than the Farmington Police Department — did not respond to queries from The Daily Times about whether their agencies have launched an FIU. But an online search of their various divisions turned up no such listing.
Hebbe placed great emphasis on the creation of the unit as part of his effort to improve transparency, increase accountability and build trust with the community.
"If you look at where departments are getting into trouble with the public, it's use of force," he said. "We devoted the resources to this because we realize how fragile that relationship can be with the public."
Hebbe said Postlewait was the obvious choice to lead the new unit here, something Hebbe began thinking about creating shortly after joining the department in 2014. Not only did Postelwait conduct the most complete and comprehensive use-of-force investigations in the department, the chief said, but he was widely respected by officers on the street.
Hebbe knew that credibility would be crucial in making the new unit a success. The launch of the FIU represented a major change for the department, and Hebbe expected resistance — not just because of the additional paperwork the new system would require, but because of the idea that a new layer of bureaucracy was being added to scrutinize the work of rank-and-file officers.
"We worked hard to have them not be perceived as another internal affairs," Hebbe said of the FIU. "These guys do not do internal affairs investigations. If they find something (that appears to be outside the department's use of force policy), they kick it over to internal affairs. (Internal affairs) will be ones who do an investigation into the complaint."
But emphasizing that distinction didn't eliminate the grousing entirely, he acknowledged.
"From the sergeants on the street, there was easy acceptance," Hebbe said. "The sergeants embraced it. But from the officers, there was this sense of mystery — 'What does that mean?' There has been some resistance to it."
After putting together draft versions, Postlewait and fellow FIU member Sgt. Nick Bloomfield sought and used input from officers when they finalized the use of force reporting forms. That helped the change go down easier, Postlewait said.
"We didn't involve them initially. We never asked them what they thought," he said, explaining that oversight contributed to the resistance. But when officers could see their suggestions for changes were being taken seriously, "That kind of helped. They had a part in this process. That was probably the biggest hiccup."
Getting everybody on the same page
Now, with the new system having been in place for a year, the existence of the FIU has become institutionalized, and the compilation of standardized data is viewed as routine business. Hebbe said one of the first benefits the new system yielded was the realization that not every officer on the street was operating with the same understanding of the department's use of force policy, which essentially serves as its rules of engagement for subjects.
When department leaders spot an issue like that, they address it in the annual 40-hour maintenance training class that all members of the department are required to attend. That class is used to reinforce department policies and standards, and implement new best practices.
That annual session has been used in the past to alter the way Farmington officers approach a physical takedown of a subject, Hebbe said, citing the department's change from a "foot sweep" technique to a gentler "head tilt" technique. The former technique required an officer to kick the feet out from under a resisting subject while holding his or her handcuffed hands from behind. Hebbe said it was hard to control the subject's sudden descent that way, and the technique has the potential to look violent to an observer.
With the new technique, the handcuffed subject first has his or her head tilted to one side and back into the officer's chest. That puts the subject off balance, Hebbe said, and often reduces resistance. The officer then leans the subject down in a slower, controlled descent, supporting him or her and greatly reducing the chances of the subject being injured. The technique has the added advantage of providing better optics if there is an observer nearby.
"It disrupts their behavior and gets them on the ground," Hebbe said. "Our whole goal is to get that voluntary compliance."
The inaugural report compiled from the FIU's first year shows that Farmington officers applied force 147 times over 89 incidents last year to varying degrees of severity, the vast majority of which were minor. The FIU identified only a handful of policy violations among those instances, with 16 officer-related collateral issues, six supervisor-related collateral issues and three internal affairs referrals.
Collateral issues are defined as minor violations of the policy and usually involve the use of inappropriate language by an officer, Hebbe said. Department leaders recognize that encounters with subjects that turn physical can become emotional for officers as well as subjects, he said. But they strongly discourage the use of inappropriate language because it is unprofessional and can often escalate a situation.
And that is the primary benefit of the FIU's existence, he said. Unit members are able to revisit every application of force by an officer and determine if the officer did everything possible to de-escalate the encounter before the use of force became necessary.
"That's our mantra," he said.
When those physical encounters are minimized, Hebbe said, it's much easier for the department to cultivate a good, cooperative relationship with the public — especially in an era when scrutiny of the use of force by police is at an all-time high. Viral videos of violent encounters between police and subjects in communities across the country over the last several years have contributed to a perception-is-reality atmosphere, he said, but he wants his department to play a role in dialing that back.
Hebbe acknowledged that his officers aren't above making mistakes, but he believes the creation of the FIU will help the department hold itself accountable when those situations arise. The new unit is designed to signal to the public that his agency is committed to doing that, he said.
"You can have a problem with us," he said. "But you can't say that we aren't trying to improve. We need to do a better job of telling the public we want them to see that and not waiting until after the fact, when we're doing it defensively."
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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