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FARMINGTON — A national expert explained to community members at the Farmington Civic Center tonight how he has helped the local police department rewrite its policies over the past year to limit use of force by officers.

Eric Daigle, of the Connecticut-based Daigle Law Group, is a former police detective who now practices civil litigation related to police misconduct and employment.

He has served as a consultant for the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico police departments, both of which were under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice due to excessive-force complaints.

Daigle is here this week to train new officers and supervisors in a constitution-based use-of-force model, which teaches officers the underlying legal principles that dictate when and how an officer may use force.

Daigle said he also would help ensure that police supervisors were enforcing that training in the community and that police performed rigorous investigations into excessive-force complaints.

"We don't want to wait for litigation," Daigle said.

The Criminal Justice Training Authority, a local police academy, has phased out a former use-of-force model, the Reactive Control Model, that taught cadets to use a uniformed, scaled response to resistance and aggression.

Lt. Mark Pfetzer of the San Juan County Sheriff's Office said his agency abandoned the Reactive Control Model in May 2015. Deputies are now trained in the constitution-based model, according to Pfetzer.

Farmington police Chief Steve Hebbe said at tonight's public forum that law enforcement has been under increased scrutiny in light of deadly police shootings in cities that include Ferguson, Mo., Milwaukee and Baltimore.

The U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division has also moved "like a tidal wave" across the country, launching investigations into police departments accused of misconduct and filing litigation to enforce policy changes, according to Hebbe. He said the department has responded to that pressure by being proactive.

In June, the department trained its officers in crisis intervention, a nonviolent police tactic that utilizes de-escalation techniques to control the mentally ill or people in crisis. Hebbe said the department also has sent its command staff to training that promotes principles of respect, legitimacy and fairness in interactions with the public.

In 2013, the Farmington Police Department reported 92 use-of-force incidents. Force is any action used by an officer to resist or control and can range from grabbing a suspect's arm to use of a deadly weapon.

The department reported 118 incidents of force in 2014. Hebbe said the increase was due in part to an influx of young police officers at the department and better documentation of use-of-force incidents by command staff.

In 2015, the department reported 87 use-of-force incidents, and in 2016, the department has reported 35 use-of-force incidents.

Hebbe said a reduction in use-of-force incidents was one way to measure the success of the department's efforts to improve community relations. He said a reduction in excessive force and less litigation against the department were also important.

However, Hebbe said officers needed to use force — sometimes deadly force — to protect themselves and the public, and cited the fatal shooting Friday of a Hatch police officer as an example of that.

J Spotted Eagle, a resident of Bloomfield, attended the public forum with her partner.

"This is the most confidence I have had in a police department in a long time," she said. "All the time I've been on this earth."

She said she appreciated that Hebbe listened to residents.

David John, a member of the city's Community Relations Commission, said the Farmington Police Department historically has had strained relations with the city's Native American residents, but he appreciated the chief's outreach efforts on the reservation.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644. 

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