A Denton Police officer uses his patrol car as a shield as he covers his fellow officers with a rifle in July 2012.

Denton police will soon stop using force on people when making arrests or detaining alleged criminals. Instead, officers will respond with force to people’s resistance during encounters.

What’s the difference? Not much.

A change in the wording of the Denton Police Department’s internal policy manual will rename its “use of force” policy and call it the “response to resistance” policy. It is part of a trend in law enforcement to eliminate the authoritative associations with the word “force” and its use by police.

“The change in terminology is simply to more accurately reflect what police officers are doing,” said Denton Police Chief Frank Dixon. “They aren’t simply ‘using force,’ they are responding to someone’s resistance, which causes them to use force.”

DRC_Frank Dixon

Frank Dixon

Modernizing the department’s policy manual was something Dixon set out to do when he first arrived at the department in October. The new manual will be finished in the next three months, Dixon said. Police spokesman Bryan Cose said the manual will be available for the public to view online once completed.

The department is not changing much about how it already handles cases in which an officer takes a person to the ground, uses a Taser on them, uses pepper spray or fires a weapon at them, Cose said.

Supervisors within the department routinely investigate each resistance-response case to determine if an officer’s use of force was justified, if they need to be reprimanded or if the department can use the case as a teaching example for other officers.

All these instances, whether or not an officer is found to be in the wrong, are forwarded to the internal affairs division for further review, police said.

“There’s always the opportunity to improve by looking at each and every case,” Cose said.

In the era of the smartphone-captured interaction with police, departments are reframing how officers and the public imagine a Taser deployment or a tackle to the ground.

“Several agencies across the country have changed this in the last few years,” Dixon said, “so we are simply catching up to the standard.”

The Lewisville Police Department made this change about a year ago. Capt. Don Rochelle, who leads that department’s officer training efforts, said the agency’s “use of force” class was redesignated the “response to resistance” class to better frame what officers are doing in the field.

“We’re not sitting around in [preshift] briefing hoping we get to use force tonight,” Rochelle said. “We hope we do not have to.”

He said nothing has really changed in terms of how the agency deploys force or how those instances are investigated. The department takes the same steps to ensure that instances where force is used are documented and addressed.

“It’s a play on words,” Rochelle said. “‘Use of force’ just sounds bad.”

Rochelle first got the idea after hearing Houston Police Chief Art Acevado talk about the switch at a law enforcement conference. The Houston Police Department is among the Texas agencies that calls it a “response to resistance” policy.

The Dallas Police Department has also made the change from use of force.

“They’re trying to change the tone of it to make society know they are not an aggressive institution,” says Scott Belshaw, a criminal justice professor at the University of North Texas.

Law enforcement agencies have made these phraseology changes in other ways. Remember the Texas Department of Corrections? Today, say the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Probation officers? Nope. They are “community supervision officers.”

“This is not an uncommon thing in criminal justice to soften the terminology in our field,” Belshaw said. “It happens, but it happens in response to society.”

DALTON LAFERNEY can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @daltonlaferney.

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