Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer was among the attendees at the “I Can’t Breathe” vigil held Saturday, May 30 at Mayor Bill Overstreet Park. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

Juneau Police Chief Ed Mercer was among the attendees at the “I Can’t Breathe” vigil held Saturday, May 30 at Mayor Bill Overstreet Park. (Peter Segall | Juneau Empire)

JPD Chief talks department strengths, struggles amid nationwide protests

The department released their use of force policy early Thursday

Juneau Police Department command condemned the role of Minneapolis police in the death of George Floyd in the strongest terms. They also reiterated Thursday their commitment to community policing during a Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

“My heart goes out to the Floyd family. I think the actions being taken on the officers involved in that is appropriate,” said JPD Chief Ed Mercer in the Zoom meeting. “I will tell you, and I’ve said it publicly, we don’t condone excessive use of force. We open up an internal investigation on our officers if they do that.”

The release of the department’s use of force policy, which was released to the public Thursday, outlines this. It describes the circumstances under which less-than-lethal force may be applied, which is only to protect the officer and others, to restrain or subdue a resistant individual or to bring an unlawful situation under control.

“Force and using force is something that is always going to be part of police work, but it must be justified,” Mercer said. “When an officer uses pepper spray or a Taser in a way that’s justified, for someone who’s not used to it, it can look really really bad. We’re talking about the difference between what’s necessary and what’s excessive.”

JPD’s policy does allow for carotid holds, if all other techniques besides lethal force have failed. A carotid hold involves pinching off the blood carried through the carotid artery to the brain, done by wrapping an arm around the target’s throat from behind. It skirts being a chokehold, as it does not involve cutting the target’s airflow off, but rather cuts off blood flow to the brain, inducing unconsciousness in 8-10 seconds, if done properly.

“For people that aren’t used to living in this world, you could see something that is reasonably necessary, and it could look really really bad,” Mercer said.

JPD policy requires medical treatment in any case where the carotid hold is used. Many, including the “8 Can’t Wait” and Black Lives Matter movements, have called for removing chokeholds from police department policies.

Assembly asks for use of force policy specifics

“I think we’re getting hit with a bunch of demands to change and things,” Mercer said. “Sure, we’ll look at it. We’ll make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

Other policies already in line with proposed changes including JPD’s policies against shooting at or from moving vehicles, mandatory reporting of any force beside using a firm grip to control or pick someone up, requirements to treat and document any instance where officers injure someone. The use of force continuum, which would have officers work through each level of force until a suspect is subdued, was called outdated by Mercer during a Monday Assembly meeting.

A presentation released on JPD’s Facebook identified the model employed by JPD as the Force Paradigm, which calls for officers to identify the appropriate level of force to gain compliance.

The JPD also posted the requirements of the “8 Can’t Wait” movement and how they were complying with them as a department.

“We want to be as transparent as we possibly can,” Mercer said. “We have a really good police department, we know we have a good police department. We don’t take that lightly.”

Mercer encouraged the community to reach out and work with JPD to build a better future.

“The JPD is not a perfect police department,” Mercer said. “We’ll strive to get better and work with you to do that.”

Juneau’s constrained insularity serves it well in this case, said Deputy Chief David Campbell, keeping officers part of the community instead of mentally isolating themselves from it.

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“100% of the officers that work at the JPD live in Juneau. In the vast majority of the country, you have officers that don’t live in the community,” Campbell said, acknowledging that there weren’t many other places for officers to live. “When you look at the reports of Ferguson, you had some citizens that said police were like an occupying force. Here, we go to church together, we play softball together, we go to Perseverance Theatre together, we go to Costco together.”

The JPD will welcome back three of those officers soon from the Public Safety Academy in Sitka soon, Mercer said. The JPD is currently slightly understrength, Mercer said, which has been exacerbated by officers on light duty or taking family medical leave, stretching patrol rosters thinner.

“We need to make sure our police departments are properly funded, properly trained and properly equipped,” Mercer said. “I think it’s a much larger dialogue that needs to happen, but it needs to be a dialogue.”

Mercer and Campbell also went over the department’s changes to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, which saw fewer calls but somewhat increased numbers of certain call types, such as assault and vandalism. Mercer also discussed community concerns about Juneau residents experiencing homelessness downtown, and talked about the postponement of the Citizen’s Academy held by the JPD.

A listening session with members of the JPD is scheduled for June 17. People can connect to the webinar by going to https://juneau.zoom.us/j/99130137784, calling 1-346-248-7799 with webinar ID 991 3013 7785 or listening to a Facebook Live stream.

The full use of force policy can be read below.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757.621.1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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