BOSTON (SHNS) – A statewide police oversight panel took steps Thursday toward clarifying that Massachusetts law does not ban officers from using “proportionate” force when moving to hospitalize someone in a potentially dangerous mental health crisis, and members made clear they believe that potentially deadly options should not be off the table.

State law allows police to restrain someone experiencing mental illness when there is “reason to believe that a failure to hospitalize such person would create a likelihood of serious harm.”

In the months since the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission and the Municipal Police Training Committee outlined regulations on police use of force, the groups have faced questions about possible friction between those broad restrictions and the section of existing law — sometimes referred to as Section 12 — governing involuntary mental health commitments.

POST Commission General Counsel Randall Ravitz walked commissioners through newly proposed guidance that he said would “answer that question in the negative.”

“There really is no tension between those two,” Ravitz said. “This provides additional clarification and certainty. What it says is that, toward the bottom, officers are not prohibited from using necessary and proportionate force when de-escalation tactics have been attempted or failed or are not feasible based on the totality of circumstances in a Section 12 situation, and they are not relieved of the duty they have to take certain steps to effect hospitalization.”

That thinking still applies, the guidance said, if a person believed to have mental illness poses a risk of serious harm “to themselves, and not to others.”

The document also stressed that police are not allowed to substitute their own judgment about a situation for that of licensed mental health professionals, who under the relevant section of law are initially empowered to conduct examinations, make determinations and restrain or authorize restraint of a person experiencing mental illness who poses a threat.

The draft Ravitz presented at the panel’s Thursday meeting included language making clear that law enforcement can use “non-deadly force” in Section 12 situations, but several commissioners said they want to amend the document to remove the “non-deadly” qualifier.

“I’m really concerned about how we instruct the rank-and-file officers that are actually on the street. How do we instruct them on what they can and cannot do? Because it doesn’t seem clear to the men and women that I work with and that I represent,” said commissioner Larry Calderone, a Boston police officer and president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. “There’s a lot of posturing going on, and at the end of the day, God forbid, someone uses deadly force, there are going to be questions that need to be answered, and we need to make sure we’re effectively training and protecting the men and women on the street that are out there doing this job.”

Several other commissioners agreed, with attorney Marsha Kazarosian expressing worry that including the word “non-deadly” in the guidance “could, no pun intended, handcuff a lot of situations.”

Regulations the commission crafted last year prohibit police from using force “unless de-escalation tactics have been attempted and failed or are not feasible based on the totality of the circumstances.” An officer’s response must be “necessary and proportionate.”

The POST regulations define deadly force as “physical force that can reasonably be expected to cause death or serious physical injury.”

Police are only authorized under the regulations to deploy deadly force when it is “necessary to prevent imminent harm to a person” that “poses an imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or another person.”

Psychologist Hanya Bluestone, another member of the panel, said law enforcement interaction with people experiencing mental illness poses a “complex issue.”

“When these situations develop, they can escalate, and they can become very dangerous for law enforcement officers. I think that the (existing) use of force regulations already provide directives around how an officer should make the determination in their response,” Bluestone said. “What complicates this particular issue is they’re called into situations sometimes where the person who is deemed to have a mental illness may be presenting only at risk of harm to themselves and not to others, and then when officers get involved in the situation, it can escalate.”

“But I do agree that officers, if they are being asked to intervene in these situations, need to have the flexibility to make a judgment call about their response that isn’t restricted and to follow the use of force regulations as we’ve written them,” she added.

Commissioner Kimberly West, an attorney and former state prosecutor, suggested Ravitz remove the word “non-deadly” from the draft guidance and add a clause explicitly linking the force allowed in mental health crisis cases to existing regulations.

The panel agreed to continue to gather information and feedback from law enforcement agencies and return to the topic at its next meeting.