September 16, 2023

Recent news about policing demonstrations, shooting at vehicles, and no-knock warrants


PERF members,

In today’s column I’d like to highlight a few recent news stories that caught my attention. I think each has lessons for the profession at large and may provide an opportunity for you to review your policies.

Policing demonstrations in New York City

The first is the NYPD’s settlement agreement with the State of New York about the way the department polices demonstrations. As PERF outlined in our report last year, many police departments were not prepared for the 2020 demonstrations, particularly the level of violence that occurred; the NYPD, even with all its resources, faced significant challenges. This settlement agreement aims to address issues with NYPD policies and practices that were criticized during the department’s response to the demonstrations.

The full agreement, available here, contains several interesting stipulations:

  • The NYPD will implement a four-tiered response to First Amendment activities, only moving to a higher tier when conditions defined by the agreement are met.  
  • The department will use a “Red Light/Green Light” policy when making arrests during First Amendment activities. “Red light” offenses — riot, incitement to riot, non-violent obstruction of governmental administration, violation of emergency orders, disorderly conduct, trespass, criminal mischief 3 or 4, unlawful assembly, and failure to use a sidewalk — will require the approval of someone at the rank of captain or higher before an arrest is made. Other offenses are considered “green light” offenses and will not require this approval.
  • The agreement defines the conditions under which the NYPD can use certain types of force, including O.C. spray, MK-9 spray, and “kettling” (encirclement).
  • The agreement contains several provisions related to the department’s treatment of the press. It affirms the right of the press and the public to record police performing their duties in public places. And when the NYPD gives an order to leave an area, credentialed members of the press will only be required to move to a safe location, not leave the area.
  • The NYPD will update its recruit and in-service training to reflect this agreement.

As I watched the nationwide demonstrations and rioting in the summer of 2020, I was reminded of my own experience in Minneapolis during the 2008 Republican National Convention, held in nearby Saint Paul. I was with then-Minneapolis Chief Tim Dolan, and demonstrators were sitting in the middle of the street blocking traffic in Minneapolis, where many attendees were staying. Police officials in the joint command center in Saint Paul gave orders to disperse the protesters, and officers began putting on their gas masks.

I walked to where officers were beginning to confront the protestors and suggested that members of the press in the group move to the side, where they could continue to cover the event without being arrested. At the same time, Chief Dolan saw that the protesters were peaceful and countered the orders from the command center, pulling the officers back. When the cops pulled back, demonstrators jumped up, yelled “we won,” and ran off. Chief Dolan had avoided needless arrests while enabling demonstrators to exercise their First Amendment rights.

That night taught me that both police and media members have an important role to play in these events. The New York City agreement is an effort to balance the public’s right to demonstrate, the police department’s obligation to protect public safety, and the media’s right to report on these incidents.

I’m sure many of you have similar policies and practices, but I don’t believe many agencies have addressed these topics with the level of detail provided in the New York City agreement. I encourage you all to read it, as well as our 2022 report, and compare them to your policies. Not every provision in this agreement may apply to your agency, as you may not have the resources available to the NYPD, but the larger principles in this report are important to understand, because I think they will be viewed as setting a new standard for agencies across the country.

In coming months PERF, working with the COPS Office, will publish guidance specifically on police-media interactions during demonstrations.

Shooting at moving vehicles in New York State

Next, I want to highlight the recent case of an Onondaga County, NY sheriff’s deputy shooting at a moving vehicle. According to news accounts, on the morning of September 6, Deputy John Rosello responded to a report of two cars matching the description of reportedly stolen vehicles. As he approached the two parked cars, one drove off. Deputy Rosello tried to block the other car by parking his cruiser directly in front of it, so the two vehicles were facing each other. He immediately exited his cruiser and, although the video is somewhat obscured, appeared to approach the passenger side of the stolen car, which drove toward and then  past him. At some point Deputy Rosello fired three shots. Two of the three passengers in the car — a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old — were killed. Video of the incident from a neighbor’s security camera is available here.

There are still many unknown facts in this case, in part because the deputy did not activate his body-worn camera. We are not sure when exactly the shots were fired, what the situation looked like from Deputy Rosello’s perspective, or how much danger he faced. But we can tell that he was able to move out of the way of the vehicle.

“It’s obvious he could step out of the way because he does,” Brian Higgins, the former police chief in Bergen County, NJ, told “There’s no fancy diving and rolling. Whether or not it was legally justified, what was his purpose [in] firing? Common sense would say do what he did — step out of the way.”

This case raises several important issues. One is the need for a strong policy prohibiting officers from shooting at moving vehicles, unless there is a threat of deadly force from something other than the vehicle itself. Another is the deputy’s failure to activate his body-worn camera. That footage would have been an important added data point as investigators work to determine what happened.

As I’ve written before, cases of officers and deputies shooting at moving vehicles are frustrating because so many agencies have learned from experience and improved their policies and training on this issue. The NYPD changed its policy more than 50 years ago and total police shootings decreased by half in the immediate aftermath of that single policy change. In the years since, many other police departments, including those in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Denver, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, have implemented similar policies. It’s tragic to see these cases occurring again and again.

No-knock warrants in Denver

Finally, a recent Denver Post article discussed the Denver Police Department’s reduced use of no-knock warrants. The agency used 17 no-knock warrants in 2019 and six in the first half of 2020, before former Police Chief Paul Pazen changed DPD policy to forbid their use in narcotics cases except in exceptional circumstances. DPD has not used a no-knock warrant in the more than three years since that policy change.

Division Chief Joe Montoya told the Post that the change has not harmed DPD’s narcotics investigations and the agency probably would keep the current policy. “I can’t see going back,” he said. “I can’t see any real reason for that to change. It’s working too well and it makes too much sense.”

I think this trend will continue. Like Denver, many agencies are finding lower-risk ways to accomplish the same objectives. If your agency has stopped using no-knock warrants in recent years, I’d like to hear about your experience.

I hope to have the opportunity to talk through these issues and others with you all in San Diego on October 15th at our Town Hall Meeting at the IACP Conference.

Have a fantastic fall weekend!