Mississippi Capitol Police, under fire for shootings, is rewriting rules on force

JACKSON, Miss. — The Mississippi Capitol Police, which has shot four people since it began patrolling parts of Jackson last summer, will adopt an updated use-of-force policy soon that better reflects modern standards and the agency’s expanded role, a state official said Thursday.

The Capitol Police hasn’t changed its policy manual since 2006, when the department was primarily responsible for providing security for government buildings. The current manual also predates a decade-old reform movement that sparked changes at police departments across the country, such as barring chokeholds and requiring officers to use de-escalation techniques. 

Sean Tindell, commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Capitol Police, said the agency has been working on updating its policies for months. Tindell said he was under the impression that some new policies had already gone into effect. 

But after NBC News received heavily redacted copies of the agency’s use-of-force and car chase policies through a public records request, and asked why those policies had not been updated since 2006, Tindell said he asked staff for an update. He said that new versions of those policies would be enacted “very soon, probably within the next week or so.” 

“Times have changed and expectations have changed so we needed to be reviewing and updating those policies anyway,” Tindell said.

The updated use-of-force policy will include more restrictions on the use of chokeholds, Tindell said. He declined to discuss other changes to that policy, saying he had not yet compared the two documents closely. The revisions are part of a broader effort to update policies for all 11 divisions under the Department of Public Safety, which also oversees the Highway Patrol, Bureau of Narcotics and the Bureau of Investigation, Tindell said.

“Would it have been better to have all that updated in the first month of my tenure as commissioner? Absolutely. Is that practical? I don’t think so. But it is what it is,” said Tindell, who took office in 2020. “And we’re dealing with it, and trying to get all those policies updated and reviewed and to certain minimum standards.”

The updates will come at a time of intense scrutiny on the Capitol Police, which was granted new powers to patrol parts of Jackson in 2021 to help the capital city deal with a rise in murders. The Capitol Police added patrols and a street crime unit last summer. Since then, officers have been involved in four shootings. 

In one of them, a 25-year-old father of two was shot in the head during what police described as a response to a traffic violation. In another, a 49-year-old woman was struck in the arm by an officer’s bullet during a chase that police say began with officers’ attempts to pull over a suspected stolen car. Citing pending investigations, the agency has released no information that explains how or why most of the shootings occurred, leaving the public and families of those who were injured or killed largely in the dark. 

The Mississippi Capitol Police does not require its officers to wear body cameras, a standard piece of equipment for American law enforcement that allows deeper understanding of officers’ use of force. (Tindell has said the agency requested the budget to buy cameras but has not received funding.) The department also operates outside of the city’s control, answering to Tindell, who was appointed by the governor.  

For now, the 17-year-old policy manual that governed the Capitol Police’s behavior at the time of those shootings remains in effect — and largely secret. Unlike many law enforcement agencies, the Mississippi Capitol Police does not post its policy manual online and has yet to release a full copy of it in response to NBC News’ public records request. 

The redacted chapters on use-of-force and car chases that the agency provided concealed many of the allowed methods and situations. For example, the use-of-force policy includes some guidelines on when deadly force can be used, but with the redactions it is impossible to know if officers are required to try to de-escalate encounters first.

Five experts, including a criminologist, the head of a police research organization and two former police commanders, said the redactions were unusual and could undermine the Capitol Police’s transparency with the public, which is crucial to earning trust and support.

“I’m amazed someone is still redacting parts of their manual,” said Chris Burbank, the former police chief in Salt Lake City and now a vice president at the Center for Policing Equity, which helps police departments find ways to reduce the use of force. “You occasionally see undercover operations redacted. But this is not ‘Serpico.’ Use-of-force policy redactions in this day and age, that’s archaic. These are the rules by which a police officer can use force against the public. Shouldn’t the public know that?”

Charles Taylor, executive director of the Mississippi State Conference NAACP, said police rules on deadly force should be held to the highest levels of transparency. The Capitol Police is not doing that because it answers to state officials, not local ones, he said.

“It is the policy of this police force not to be transparent, and that’s what we have seen,” Taylor said. “I am terrified of what that looks like.”

Tindell said that redactions were necessary in some cases to prevent criminals from using the information to their advantage. But after seeing the amount of redactions in the policies provided to NBC News, Tindell said he told his staff to consider redacting less in the future.

“Transparency is very important and we are going to be more transparent,” Tindell said. “Sometimes it takes time to change policies and the mindset of how things are done. I want the public to feel that we are transparent and I want to be transparent because it makes us better and creates trust and creates accountability.” 

Concerns about the Capitol Police’s transparency and accountability are escalating as the Mississippi Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans and is mostly white, considers whether to give the agency the power to patrol a wider swath of Jackson, which is run by Democrats and has a predominantly Black population. The city’s mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, has called the proposal to expand the Capitol Police’s reach an “obvious attack on Black leadership.” Lawmakers have until March 8 to decide whether to pass the legislation.  

NBC News also requested the Jackson Police Department’s use-of-force policy, but the city has not yet provided the document. 

Despite being heavily redacted, the Capitol Police guidelines contained items that raised questions among some of the experts who reviewed them for NBC News. 

One is a reference in the use-of-force policy to a “lateral vascular neck restraint.” Burbank said that tactic is a chokehold, which many departments have banned in recent years. But the redactions make it impossible to tell whether or how Capitol Police officers can use the hold. 

Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina, was one of several experts who flagged what appeared to be inconsistent directives in the Capitol Police’s policy on vehicular pursuits. The policy says: “Vehicular pursuits by State Capitol Police Officers are prohibited.” But the policy goes on to say that officers should consider whether they engage in a car chase by using a “pursuit decision matrix” that ranks the seriousness of the crime being committed. That matrix is redacted.

“That is confusing,” Alpert said. “That’s goofy language by someone who is not a good attorney.”

Tindell acknowledged that the policy was problematic. The updated policy will clearly outline conditions in which officers can engage in a car chase, he said.

At least one police department has been ordered by a court to release an unredacted version of its use-of-force policy.

In Michigan, a member of the local League of Women Voters took the police department in Sault Ste. Marie to court after the agency would only share a redacted copy of its use-of-force policy, saying a full version would jeopardize officers’ safety. The American Civil Liberties Union and Michigan Press Association joined in support. Last week, the State of Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that the police department was wrong and ordered it to release the unredacted version.

“There is public interest in knowing the degree of force and tactics law enforcement officers are authorized to use,” said Stephen van Stempvoort, a lawyer who represented the ACLU of Michigan and the Michigan Press Association. “It’s better for everybody.”

Jon Schuppe reported from New York City; Bracey Harris reported from Jackson, Mississippi.

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