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A Q&A on police tactics

Editor’s Note: After the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and protests that turned violent in many areas of the country, the News-Herald sat down on June 9 with then-Police Chief Thomas Bennett to talk about no-knock warrants, restraint and arrest techniques, riot control tactics and more. Also present were Deputy Chiefs J.D. “Danny” Buie, Alfred Chandler and Cassandra Garvin.

The next day, Bennett announced his retirement, and Chandler was announced as interim chief the day after that. After much consideration, we feel the interview is still newsworthy, as the policies discussed in the interview are still in force and Buie, Chandler and Garvin are still providing leadership for the department.

Bennett was provided most of the questions in advance, but a few evolved during the interview. The answers have been edited for length and clarity.

This is Part 1 of 3. Part 2 will be published July 29; Part 3 will be published Aug. 2.

What did you think of the George Floyd video?

Bennett: I was appalled. I guess that’s a good way to observe a video that you see somebody unnecessarily murdered, and in my opinion that’s what the officers did to him. That one officer was on his neck and back for over eight minutes. There was no need for it. There was no excuse for it. He’s lost his job, he’s been arrested and charged with murder, and I hope he goes to jail. He deserves to, plain and simple.

The other three officers are a whole other story. I wasn’t there so I can’t say exactly what happened. I don’t think all the officers did everything they could have and should have.

What training methods are used for restraint in Suffolk Police Department and who reviews them?

Garvin: Our initial arrest control tactics are taught through the regional academy, the Hampton Roads Criminal Justice Training Academy. Primarily, they’re taught by staff instructors who have been through instruction courses. All of their course objectives and lesson plans are based on state-required objectives and are reviewed at that level. Whenever we do refresher training through our in-service, it is taught by certified defensive tactics instructors and the lesson plans are actually run through (the HRCJTA).

Are there any types of restraints that are not allowed in SPD?

Bennett: We use handcuffs and leg irons. Sometimes on extraditions, police agencies use a belt with a loop to handcuff people’s hands to their waist, and we have something called a hobble restraint, which limits mobility of the legs, but it doesn’t bind the person.

What about use of the officer’s body weight, as was the case in George Floyd’s death?

Bennett: Sometimes we have to use physical force. What a police officer is supposed to do is use the minimum amount to get the job done and then stop. In other words, you might have an officer that goes to arrest somebody, they pull away, they take a swing at us, they try to run away and we tackle them. We handcuff them, then we get them up off the ground, search them, put them in a car and take them to jail. We don’t (put our) knee on their back and head for eight minutes while they lay there and die. Nobody should be doing that. Some agencies in this country are still doing chokeholds or carotid holds. That’s not allowed here and hasn’t been allowed here since way before I came here.

So what types of holds are not permitted in SPD?

Chandler: Anything that constricts the airway. We used to have different types of restraint materials that we used. We found through research those were creating undue injuries, so that’s why we went to the hobble strap. Basically it’s a strap that goes around their legs to keep them from doing stuff like kicking the windows out or kicking the officer when the officer opens the door. It’s a better material, so it won’t create that damage.

Bennett: Our policy prohibits grabbing people around the neck and choking them for minutes on end. Our policy does not prohibit us from grabbing somebody’s arm, leg, head, neck and taking them to the ground during a fight if we have to do that to get them down. We don’t allow our officers just to hold people and choke them for any period of time. That’s strictly prohibited.

So what I’m telling you is if you ever saw an officer in a fight and they grab somebody around the neck and threw them to the ground to try to get control of them, that is permissible. Holding that neck is not permissible, because that could choke them out and kill them.

What is the process to locate and get rid of bad police officers?

Bennett: We have several methods we use to try to identify people that are having problems. The first one is called Early Warning Triggers. It’s a policy and a program we have. We look at various types of activities the officers are involved in. If we start to see a large amount of these, we believe it could indicate they’re having personal problems or some kind of problems. We take a hard look at them, look at all the incidents, see if they need help or what’s going on. For example, we look at stuff like if they’re involved in a whole bunch of accidents, or a whole bunch of uses of force. Or they’re late to work all the time or they’ve been getting a lot of discipline. Sometimes, if you see a combination of that stuff that’s indicative of some kind of issue.

Chandler: Our video program is a huge way we look for problems. Supervisors have to randomly select body camera footage from each officer every month and watch that video in its entirety. We are looking not only for physical force situations but policy violations in general. How did our officers speak to the citizens? Did they fix the problem? Did they use the professional traffic stop model? Did they properly identify themselves? If the citizen asks for a supervisor, was that information relayed?

Bennett: We have stairstep discipline. We discipline people for issues that they have, and as they get more serious and/or more in number, it starts out with oral counseling, then written, then suspension, then eventually I decide we no longer need your services.