D.M. council pushes police for clearer policies on de-escalation

Des Moines council members asked Police Chief Dana Wingert to clarify policies on avoiding violence during stops. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Police Department)

Police should tweak their policies on de-escalation and use of force to stress their work to avoid conflict, Des Moines council members said Monday.

Council members met with Police Chief Dana Wingert and other members of the police department at a work session. 

Josh Mandelbaum is a member of the Des Moines City Council. (Photo courtesy of city of Des Moines)

Councilman Josh Mandelbaum posed the most questions and pushed hardest for action by Wingert. Councilwoman Connie Boesen also posed several questions. 

Mandelbaum mainly suggested rewording policies to emphasize elements already in place. The department was one of many involved in responding to Black Lives Matter protests this year, some of which included people who broke windows out of businesses along Court Avenue and hurled things at police. Officers responded at times with tear gas and pepper spray in protests that came after the death of George Floyd when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. 

Wingert noted that the department added a policy analysis position in 2017, and officers’  use of force was one of the first procedures checked. The policies are reviewed and amended regularly, he added. Officers are tested on the material and sign documents acknowledging the rules, which govern the use of chokeholds, duty to intervene and de-escalation policies, Wingert noted. 

Mandelbaum suggested that the policy banning most chokeholds, a change mandated by the Iowa Legislature last session, begin with a statement on the need for de-escalation in many instances, which other parts of the policy address. 

“In item two, which establishes the policy, there wasn’t any reference to de-escalation in that part of the use of force (language), and that seems like a pretty important place to have a reference to de-escalation,” Mandelbaum said. 

Councilwoman Connie Boesen agreed, noting that the department has had extensive training on de-escalation procedures. “I think it should really be forefront to what we’re trying to do,” Boesen said. 

Connie Boesen is a member of the Des Moines City Council. (Photo courtesy of city of Des Moines)

Mandelbaum said he is concerned about a policy that says officer should “consider” de-escalation when it is “reasonable.” 

“I want to see that language be stronger,” Mandelbaum said. He noted that Waterloo’s policy says, “When safely possible, an officer will utilize de-escalation techniques before moving to a higher level of force.”

“My question is, why wouldn’t we have that kind of language?” Mandelbaum asked.

When Mayor Frank Cownie asked Wingert if he had any response, the chief said: “I’m writing notes.” He didn’t elaborate. 

Wingert also didn’t respond to Mandelbaum’s suggestion that Des Moines use Waterloo’s language noting that officers would “exhaust all other means” of handling a situation before firing a weapon. 

Dana Wingert is the police chief in Des Moines. (Photo courtesy of city of Des Moines)

In September, the Des Moines Register reported Des Moines police documented 192 uses of force in 2015. In 2019, the number was 422.

Wingert told council members Monday that some data on use of force have spiked because of changes in the types of incidents officers are required to report and added training that has made them more aware of those situations.

When Councilman Carl Voss asked a question about training, Wingert said every officer gets 16 hours of training on policy changes each year, as a start. 

Wingert said he would review the council’s suggestions with City Manager Scott Sanders before scheduling another discussion with the council.