WESTERLY — The International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 503, which represents rank-and-file officers of the Westerly Police Department, says a policy change proposed by Police Chief Richard Silva could put their lives at risk during confrontations with dangerous subjects.
The union contends that the proposal would change the department’s policy on use of force. Silva, though, said the controversy stems from a change he is proposing to the department’s “early warning system” — policies and procedures for identifying officers who, according to the current policy, “may be experiencing difficulties in the workplace and providing resources to the employee at the early stages of the problem.” To remove any negative connotations, Silva has proposed changing the name of the policy to “performance tracking.”
Under the current early warning system, supervisors look at an officer’s use of force incidents along with performance evaluations, citizen complaints, attendance patterns, traffic accidents, disciplinary actions and other metrics to determine whether intervention is required.
Silva, in an interview last week, declined to release a draft of the changes he is proposing but discussed the overall concepts. The union, in letters to Town Manager J. Mark Rooney, said one the chief’s ideas would put them at risk.
“Chief Silva clearly articulated during a recent staff meeting his stance on use of force encounters and whether the use of force is ‘necessary and justified.’ The two terms contradict each other and is the kind of thinking that causes officers to second guess their decisions they have to make in a split second and may ultimately cost them their lives,” the union said in letters dated June 13 and May 17. Both letters pertain to the union’s vote of no confidence in Silva. The June 13 letter calls for Rooney to fire Silva.
The June letter goes on to discuss the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the use of force. In a case often cited as a landmark, the court found in 1989, in Graham v. Connor, that claims of excessive force made by citizens against police should be analyzed under an “objective reasonableness” standard. The Westerly Police Department’s use of force policy, which is based on a statewide model policy, states that officers “will only use that force that is objectively reasonable to accomplish lawful objectives.” It defines objective reasonable force as “that level of force which is necessary and appropriate when analyzed from the perspective of a reasonable officer possessing the same information and faced with the same circumstances as the officer who has actually used force.”
Silva declined to discuss what he and others said at the staff meeting, but agreed to discuss the intent of the proposed policy change.
“It isn’t a change in the use of force policy. Our use of force is basically based on statewide policy. I’ve never said we have a problem with use of force. We don’t. We don’t use force that often,” Silva said.
The proposed change to the early warning system is part of the department’s ongoing revision of department policies undertaken as part of an effort to have the department become accredited by the Rhode Island Police Accreditation Commission, Silva said. The early warning system, or what Silva refers to as performance tracking, involves patterns of behavior and conduct. To gain accreditation, department policies must meet standards established by the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association’s In-State Accreditation Commission.
“The standard for early intervention talks about a specific pattern of threshold levels...it’s a requirement...that’s what we’re trying to work through, what those thresholds should be,” Silva said.
The department has been preparing for accreditation since before Silva started his position in November 2016.
Whether the use force if justified, Silva said, is determined by whether the force meets the “reasonably objective” standard discussed by the Supreme Court. He also emphasized the difficulty officers face in potentially dangerous situations and said the standard recognizes “that officers make split-second decisions under circumstances that are not ideal. They’re tense, uncertain and sometimes rapidly evolving,” Silva said.
Silva said he believes looking at whether a specific use of force was necessary is also helpful.
“If an incident is justified that means it’s legal, so that is proper. But was it necessary?” Silva said.
The answer to whether a specific use of force, for instance use of pepper spray, was necessary could help the department fine tune its officer training, Silva said.
“It’s just when you look at the bigger picture...at the end of the year. Is there a different way of doing something? Are there deficiencies in training? Is there anything we can improve on … the answer might be no, but it’s worth evaluating what we do. That’s part of making sure we are doing the best we can,” Silva said.
For the time being, in light of the controversy, Silva said he has put the proposed changes to the performance tracking policy on hold. “I’ve told the union: These are the standards, how can we meet them? I’m open to suggestions. I’m open to creative, legitimate ways to meet the standard.”
“In my opinion it has nothing to with the use of force policy itself and everything to do with tracking the use of force and then a subsequent review off all the information...it’s not just use of force, it tracks a variety of different topics,” Silva said.
The union’s executive committee declined to answer questions for this article. Instead it issued the following statement:
“The union filed a demand to bargain on this matter several months ago... the chief tabled the matter and there has been no further discussion as he has not reached out to us.”