Rockford police report fewer officer conduct complaints

ROCKFORD — Complaints about Rockford police officer conduct were down 59 percent through the first half of 2016.

There had been 17 internal and external complaints about police conduct filed through June 30, down from 41 filed in the first six months of 2015. And so far this year, there has not been a single complaint filed claiming excessive force, according to information from the department’s Office of Professional Standards.

Chief Dan O’Shea, who arrived in April, said training was critical to ensuring that police officers use the right amount and type of force — ranging from grabs and joint locks to Tasers and firearms — when a suspect resists arrest.

“Zero excessive use of force complaints would be a fantastic year, and we hope we can keep doing that,” O’Shea said. “That comes back to training and using the right amount of force for the situation.”

Excessive force complaints from fellow police officers, suspects and the general public have fallen since 2012, when there were 12. There were eight complaints about excessive force in 2013, three in 2014 and one last year.

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The declining number of excessive force and other police conduct complaints filed with the department is a sign that the department’s training unit and its officer early warning system are effective, Mayor Larry Morrissey said.

Departments nationally have faced angry and sometimes violent protests over treatment of minority residents, Morrissey said.

Morrissey said Rockford police have worked to improve relationships with minority community leaders and residents, improve training and better manage officer activity and use of force.

Morrissey said he hoped Rockford had put in the work necessary to avoid the kind of unrest seen in Milwaukee, Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri, after controversial police shootings.

“When you look back, the results we have today aren’t the result of happenstance,” Morrissey said. “It’s the result of a number of very strategic, intentional investments we have made in training tools, monitoring tools, and then to have a management system utilizing those steps and managing it every day.”

Rockford officers are required to notify a supervisor whenever they use force beyond handcuffing a suspect who does not resist. A police supervisor responds to the scene whenever force is used and conducts a review.

Certain types of force require an investigation. These include when officers punch or kick, use Tasers or a less-lethal “bean bag” shotgun, when medical treatment is needed or when deadly force is used regardless of whether anyone is killed.

In addition to investigations that can be launched because of a single instance where force was used or in cases where there is an allegation too much force was used, police officer conduct is reviewed if there are warning signs of potential trouble under an early warning program.

That program is designed to alert commanders to potential problems so they can counsel officers or refer them for additional training in hopes of preserving police careers and avoiding costly lawsuits. For instance, when an officer breaks his hand punching someone in a justified use of force situation, he or she may be trained to use a “palm heel strike” instead of a punch, Lt. Daniel Watton said.

Rockford in 2009 instituted a computer-based system to manage the early warning system and track officer activity.

Every Rockford officer is required to enter any police pursuits, injuries and use of force into the computer program known as Blue Team. It also tracks the number of complaints filed against an officer.

When an officer reaches a certain number — 10 uses of force or three citizen complaints in a year, for example — it triggers a review of all those incidents and possible individualized training, Watton said.

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