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PD Editorial: Revisit lethal force policies to prevent needless deaths

Gruesome barely describes the death of George Floyd.

A Minneapolis police officer kneeled on Floyd's neck for more than seven minutes, impassively ignoring the 46-year-old man's pleas that he could not breathe. He didn't even relent when paramedics arrived to check Floyd's pulse. Three other officers stood by, failing to intercede.

The racial overtones cannot be ignored: Floyd was black, the officers were white.

Moreover, he was unarmed, and police were investigating a possible forgery, not some violent crime.

Regardless of race, this was a horrifying display of police brutality and callous disregard for human life.

Those responsible may have escaped scrutiny in the time before cellphone cameras. With their behavior on video, the officers were fired the next day, and criminal charges are possible.

They should be held accountable, but Floyd's death should not be treated as an isolated incident. It is, instead, further evidence that police, in Minnesota and across the country, need to reevaluate their protocols for the use of deadly force.

If law enforcement agencies resist, civilian authorities should take the lead.

In Sonoma County, the law enforcement oversight agency formed after the 2013 shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez is embarking on just such an inquiry.

The Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Oversight, in partnership with the criminal justice department at Sonoma State University, is reviewing use-of-force and de-escalation policies used by county sheriffs across California.

The findings will be presented to the Community Advisory Commission, an arm of the oversight office that makes policy recommendations to the sheriff.

The evaluation follows a local incident in which body-camera video exposed violent abuse of a man stopped by sheriff's deputies and Sebastopol police.

David Glen Ward, 52, died after a deputy wrapped an arm around his neck - a practice prohibited by many law enforcement agencies - and dragged him through the window of his car. The video also showed deputies shock Ward with a Taser and bang his head against the car.

Ward had reported his car stolen several days earlier, but he had recovered it.

It's unknown why he didn't explain that to the deputies, but family members say he had difficulty breathing and walking since being hit by a drunken driver and wasn't physically able to comply with orders to get out of his car.

Ward's death was ruled a homicide, the deputy resigned after being served notice of termination by Sheriff Mark Essick, and a criminal investigation is ongoing.

Essick controls any revisions to Sonoma County's use-of-force policies, including limited authorization for use of the carotid artery restraint applied to Ward. He isn't required to follow any recommendations of the Community Advisory Commission.

Indeed, relations between the Sheriff's Office and the law enforcement review agency were strained under Essick's predecessor. A new director, Karlene Navarro, a revamped commission and a timely study of use-of-force policies offer a chance for a fresh start. (Lorez Bailey, a community member of the editorial board, is one of the new commissioners.)

Police have a tough job, and they are given wide latitude to use force, even take lives, when necessary. Reasons for using force and allowable methods should be under constant reevaluation.

For now, add the names of George Floyd and David Glen Ward to the list of people whose actions didn't warrant the use of lethal force.

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