EDITOR’S NOTE: Several weeks ago, The Eagle-Tribune asked some police departments in the area to supply their use-of-force policies amid the racial unrest around the country. To date, in Massachusetts, Methuen, Lawrence, Haverhill and North Andover have supplied them. Andover did not. In New Hampshire, Derry and Plaistow have done the same. Salem did not. Sunday’s story was the first in a two-day look at their responses, focusing on Massachusetts. Today, the New Hampshire policies are reviewed.
While some of the region's police department use-of-force policies have been in place and unchanged for years, others have been updated in the wake of the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In New Hampshire, as in Massachusetts, it is at the discretion of each municipality to set its use-of-force policy and give authority to what weapons police can carry. A consistency is that no written directive can cover every situation, meaning the guidelines must be paired with training.
Here is a look at the policies in Derry and Plaistow.
Police Chief Edward Garone recently distributed use-of-force guidelines that better reflect the training provided to Derry police officers, according to Capt. Vern Thomas.
In 10 pages, the document focuses on de-escalation, clarifies the prohibition of neck restraints, and points out the importance of intervention by another officer during a use of force that may not comply with policy.
“The purpose of this policy is to provide police officers with guidelines on the use of force. A basic responsibility of police officers is to preserve life,” Thomas said. “Whenever practical, officers should employ other means of defense and control before resorting to the use of force.”
He noted, "However, no officer is required or expected to sacrifice his/her own safety when faced with a threat of serious physical injury or death.”
Overall, the guidelines state, the department's policy is to avoid using force whenever possible. Officers are instead advised to use techniques to minimize the need to use force by opting for verbal communication, along with de-escalation techniques such as creating space, slowing things down, and/or requesting additional resources.
“When force is necessary, officers are to use the amount of force reasonably necessary to achieve lawful police objectives while also maintaining a high degree of safety for the officers and the public,” according to guidelines.
As has historically been the case among Derry officers, “the use of neck holds shall be prohibited unless the use of deadly force is authorized.”
Deadly force is justified, according to the guidelines, only when an officer is defending him or herself from an imminent lethal threat.
Each sworn member of the department is required to receive in-service training on the department’s policies and all agency-issued weapons at least annually.
That includes a reminder of the exclusion of neck holds and a duty to stop the use of excessive force by another officer when it is safe and reasonable to do so.
“It would be impossible to attempt to categorize and define the levels of force appropriate for every given situation,” the guidelines state. Instead, the Derry Police Department utilizes a “Force Continuum” which provides officers with a guideline representing how much force may be used against a perceived threat to a given situation.
With any use of force, a report — separate from an incident report — must be completed and forwarded to the chief through the chain of command.
The department’s training sergeant reviews all submitted use-of-force reports quarterly, as an effort to identify any patterns or trends that could initiate training needs and or policy modifications.
A redacted version of the department’s use-of-force policies is available for public viewing. The first redactions include the make and model of some of the weapons Plaistow officers carry and have access to.
“Deadly weapons shall not be used if other, less-drastic means of apprehension are possible,” the policy reads.
Also, “If less dramatic means of apprehension are not possible, officers shall fire their weapons to stop an assailant from completing a deadly act. For maximum stopping effectiveness, the officer should (redacted).”
Officers cannot make a distinction relative to the age, sex, race or appearance when defending against deadly force. Self-defense and immediate threat to life are the only reasons for using deadly force, according to the policy.
The department’s firearms instructor is responsible for preparing a use-of-force training report documenting each officer’s proficiency with available firearms.
Sergeants and higher ranks have exclusive authority to use force to terminate a pursuit.
Incidents involving force must be reported to a superior immediately and to the chief of police in writing within 24 hours.
The officer is placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation, and also must get mental health care.
All reported use of force, deadly and non-deadly, will be reviewed by the department to determine whether this policy, or any other rules and procedures, were violated.
Use of less lethal impact munitions are considered uses of force under the policy. Unless deadly force is warranted, officers cannot deploy these weapons to the head, neck, chest, spine, kidney area, on pregnant females (if known to the officer), young children, or closer than 5 yards.
Department policy is to train, certify and arm officers with OC spray, an organic substance derived from the oils and waxes of the cayenne pepper. It is an inflammatory agent.
“OC spray shall never be used as a punishment,” the policy reads.
It can also not be used on people who are already restrained or confined unless circumstances indicate additional hazard to the officer.
Policies extend to handcuffing, including proper use of the restraints. “At no point shall a subject be confined into a hog-tying position,” it states.
All instances in which someone is handcuffed will be documented in an officer’s report. Training on proper methods will happen at least biennially.
Police batons have been used in Plaistow since 2002. They came with guidelines of seven acceptable strikes, much of which is redacted from public view.
Tasers, which the department has had since 2019, are to be avoided in all but extraordinary circumstances, the policy states.