Take a close look at the next Juneau Police Department officer walking down the street, and you might notice something missing from his or her belt: a baton.
That soon will change.
JPD is getting new batons in the fall. This time, they’ll be collapsible, so the officers can carry them on their belts.
Most police departments across the country did away with the straight stick and side handle batons, which look like “big billy clubs,” as JPD Chief Bryce Johnson described them, after the 1991 beating of Rodney King, which sparked riots in Los Angeles.
JPD considered getting rid of its batons at that time, too, but decided to keep the older model because they delivered more force than collapsible batons, JPD Lt. Kris Sell said.
The department recently changed its mind. The reason is logistical: JPD officers usually leave their straight stick batons in their patrol cars because they’re big and cumbersome.
“Because of their size, they can slap up against your legs when you’re running, and they’re awkward on a bicycle,” Sell said in a recent joint interview at the JPD station with chief Johnson. “We found out that a baton left in a patrol car delivers zero force, and so we decided to re-evaluate how we were looking at the batons.”
Johnson added he wasn’t thrilled with the visual of his officers patrolling the streets with something resembling a baseball bat.
“The visuals of that are a little bit stand-off-ish, whereas if I have this one,” he said, pointing to the new collapsible baton, “and it sits on my belt like that, the visuals are a lot different. So this is quite a bit more approachable than (the straight stick baton).”
The new batons, which the department paid for out its equipment budget, deliver just about as much force as a straight stick.
A silver metal rod flies out of a black handle with a flick of wrist. It makes a distinctive audible ring.
“What we’re hoping is that when anybody hears that, they’ll just comply, and we’ll just put it away,” Sell said, demonstrating how it works. “That’s the objective.”
JPD tested the new batons, which range in length from 21 to 29 inches, during training a few months ago and will roll them out after more training in the fall. Officers are also trained on how to use collapsible batons at the Department of Public Safety law enforcement academy in Sitka.
Because Juneau police officers have habitually left their batons in their patrol cars in recent years, they are rarely used. There were only two instances in the past five years — one in 2010 and another in 2014 — where batons were used to strike Juneau citizens, according to JPD’s annual police report released in late June.
Juneau police are much more apt to use their hands as a means of force, as was the case 95 times in the past five years, the report indicates. Tasers were the second-most common use of force with 82 instances in the past five years. Use of pepper spray, used 25 times over the same timeframe, is third. Juneau police haven’t used deadly force since 2007 when an officer shot and killed a man wielding a samurai sword.
The report does not indicate how many times officers drew their weapons on the job.
Now that officers will be carrying a collapsible baton on their hip, Juneau can expect to see them in more situations.
“I would think that because we just had these in the cars and we weren’t using them, when they’re available, they could get used occasionally,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it would be a whole lot, but we’ll see. It’ll be when it’s appropriate.”
Batons are widely seen in the eyes of the public as a symbol of police brutality and as weapons that can be used to coerce, harass, threaten, injure or kill someone. The Orwellian-sounding name, PeaceKeeper Rapid Containment Batons, as the ones JPD are getting are called, doesn’t help.
From the police standpoint, batons are another authorized use of force that can help them gain compliance from a person resisting arrest, or to help protect themselves from a threat.
Johnson noted that batons can be an alternate to using deadly force.
“What we want (the officers) to have is a lot of different force options,” he said. “What this will end up doing is it can reduce the injury to the officers, and it also can reduce injury to people because if we can hit you with a baton instead of having to shoot you, that’s a good thing.”
He cited one example, a disturbance at the Juneau International Airport a few months ago, when an Alaska Airlines passenger was removed from a plane after getting caught smoking a cigarette in the bathroom. The man fled from two responding police officers on the tarmac, and when they caught up with him, the man fought with officers. He allegedly wrestled Officer Kim Horn to the ground and tried to take her holstered weapon. The other officer, Sgt. Chris Burke, punched and hit the man in the head until he was able to get him off of Horn.
“If you’re trying to pull someone’s gun out, that’s getting to the level of deadly force,” Johnson said. “… It’s going to make things safer for the officers.”
Johnson said threatening use of force with the baton helps officers “de-escalate” situations and gain compliance from people resisting arrest.
“Say I’ve got this baton, and if you’re — we’re always reactionary to what you’re doing — so if you’re coming and you’re thinking, ‘Hey, I want to fight with this officer, I want to hit this officer,’ if I pull this baton out, and I stand like this and look at you and I say, ‘You need to get down,’ that has a pretty good de-escalation factor because he knows what’s going to happen next if he doesn’t follow my verbal commands,” Johnson said. “And I carried a collapsible baton for a lot of years, and I had it de-escalate a lot of situations where they … complied verbally because they didn’t want the baton to come out. With this in our cars, we don’t have that. … Its mere presence can cause people to stop whatever behavior they’re doing and follow verbal commands.”
When asked if he was concerned about excessive use of force, JPD Chief Johnson noted batons are already authorized for officers to carry.
“It’s not like we’re coming up with a new tool,” he said. “We already have it.”
He pointed to the old straight stick baton and the new collapsible one next to it on a table in front of him.
“If the question is, ‘Am I worried about inappropriate use of force?’, I always am, but which (baton) would you want the officers carrying?”