The Yakutat Public Safety building (Photo by Becky Meiers/KCAW)

Yakutat’s police force has updated guidelines for how and when its officers use force. The updated policy restricts chokeholds and emphasizes de-escalating potentially violent confrontations.

The Yakutat Police Department’s updated policy defines chokeholds as deadly force. And it instructs officers to give a verbal warning before using force that could injure someone. If they don’t, they’re required to document why they didn’t. 

These guidelines are part of a new, publicly available police operations manual that hadn’t been updated since 2007. Use of force policies have only recently received public scrutiny after police departments across the nation began publishing their use of force policies.

“I don’t think in policing we can and maybe never should have had these secret,” Police Chief Jim Capra said. He took charge of the department in November, having come from the National Park Service where he’d worked as a law enforcement ranger. And he said he welcomes more transparency for the local department.

The document is still in draft form. It’s awaiting the city manager’s and Capra’s signatures and an audit by an independent agency.

Use of force techniques like chokeholds have come under scrutiny in response to police killings of people of color, including the death of George Floyd last May in Minneapolis.  But Capra said the updated policy isn’t just the product of the national conversation about high-profile deaths at the hands of law enforcement. President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order last June that makes some Department of Justice grants contingent on following specific guidelines. 

“The executive order gives us until the end of January to get this done, or we would lose any chance at any federal funding grants that might come up,” he said.

The policy changes also promote the use of de-escalation techniques, tell officers to seek medical care when needed, and require them to terminate force as soon as a person is compliant. Capra said all of those were already part of officer’s academy training.

Yakutat’s police department isn’t the only Alaska agency taking a look at how they employ force. Capra said he talked to several departments that hadn’t updated their policies for years.

“I think it forced every department in the state to look at it,” he said.

The updated policy still authorizes the use of deadly force to stop arson, sexual assault and robbery, which previous reporting by CoastAlaska identified as unusual among Southeast Alaska police departments. Capra says he’s going to take a second look at the policy, but in all cases, the use of deadly force is still governed by standards set by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Before they could make that decision to use deadly force or force that could reasonably be assumed to be lethal to somebody, it would have to be to prevent death or serious injury to yourself or somebody else,” Capra said.

The use of force policy isn’t the final arbiter of whether force was justified. State attorneys also review the circumstances of every death at the hands of police, though criminal prosecutions of police officers are virtually unheard of in the state.

The state legislature is also taking a look at regulating use of force. A pre-filed bill in the Alaska state senate would outlaw the use of chokeholds unless deadly force is warranted.

So far, Capra said he’s received little public feedback in response to the changes. He says use of force reports in Yakutat are rare; he doesn’t know of any incidents since he started as chief more than two months ago.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.