Police transparency: Two stories
The first is a column in the Washington Post by Nick Selby,a Texas police detective and the lead researcher on the StreetCred Police Killings in Context data project:
A little more than a year ago, my colleagues and I started the StreetCred Police Killings In Context data project. There were already several projects tracking police shootings, including Fatal Encounters, and new projects at The Washington Post and the Guardian. But we felt that they left out crucial context. Why did the police become involved in these incidents in the first place? Was their use of force something that most people would consider reasonable, such as the police response after Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on military personnel at a Chattanooga, Tenn., recruiting station? Or was it unreasonable, as with the shameful killing of Walter Scott?
The most common criticism I received was that it was an attempt to demonstrate that police aren’t the problem. I’m a white Texas cop, so that’s not an unreasonable presumption. But I hope you’ll see that what we found can steer the conversation toward more productive and meaningful reforms.
We began, as others did — with the Fatal Encounters database. Where The Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning effort focused on police shootings, we focused on all police-related deaths. And where the Guardian included killings by, for example, prison guards, or traffic accidents, or personal disputes between officers, we focused only on official acts (on- or off-duty) by police officers.
Ultimately, we gathered more than 70 contextual data points, from the mundane (middle name) to the specific (if the person was listed as mentally ill, was it a previously diagnosed serious mental illness, or merely suspected?). We eventually identified 153 cases in which unarmed civilians had died after an encounter with police in 2015.
We now had a wealth of contextual data that we believed could add a lot to the ongoing dialogue about police shootings. We think the context for these shootings transcends both race and politics. We have assembled our findings in a book, “In Context: Understanding Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians,” which we believe is instructive for activists, police officers and use-of-force trainers. The context behind these shootings can also help readers understand how police and trainers approach these cases, and the applicable law they use to determine when different levels of force are justified.
We tried to be objective, but true objectivity is, of course, impossible — everyone has inherent bias. Instead, we’ve tried to be as open and transparent as we can. We included more than 500 source-footnotes in the book, as well as an open update system to track when we got something wrong. The data, methodology and schema on which we based our conclusions are all open and available under the Creative Commons Share Alike license. So please feel free to check our work.
From my interpretation of the data, there are some relatively easy changes police and policymakers can make that will go a long way toward improving policing in the United States. Here are what you might call the “low-hanging fruit”:
Police must release more data, and do it sooner
When agencies delay, public suspicion and speculation fill the void. Every time police choose transparency, it’s a deposit in the bank of goodwill. It builds community trust. Las Vegas has shown that a police department can be transparent and forthcoming after a police shooting without disrupting the integrity of the investigation.
Honesty begins with a timely release of the earliest available information. That might include a timeline, recordings of 911 calls, a narrative and any video. Without video or 911 calls, the public has nothing but the word of the police — and as we have seen, police do sometimes lie.
Not always. Not even a lot, according to our research. But consider the Walter Scott shooting, and the apparent lies told by Officer Michael Slager. A high-profile case like that can quickly make citizens lose faith in the system. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
While the media and activists groups often focus on race, the data show a greater disparity in deadly engagements with drug addicts and the mentally ill.
In 2015, nearly half — 46 percent — of the deaths of unarmed civilians after a police encounter involved someone suffering from serious mental illness, overdosing on drugs, or both. We tend to think of both mental health and drug addiction to be issues at the margins of society. These issues need far more social, legal and policy attention than they’re getting. . .
The other is an article by A.C. Thompson in ProPublica, titled “Latest Attempt at Police Transparency Fails In California,” which begins:
There are numerous law enforcement scandals unfolding in Northern California.
Last month, San Francisco fired its police chief after a string of officer-involved shootings and two separate episodes involving officers sending racist text messages to one another. In Oakland, the mayor recently ousted two police chiefs in the span of five days amid a widening investigation into allegations that 14 city officers — as well as law enforcement agents from at least three other jurisdictions — had sex with a teenage prostitute. And sheriff’s deputies and corrections officers in San Francisco, Alameda County, and Santa Clara County are facing criminal charges ranging from assault to murder.
While this collection of ugly incidents will continue to generate headlines for months to come, many of the key facts are likely to remain permanently shrouded by California laws placing tight restrictions on the release of law enforcement records and information related to criminal investigations. The state, as an investigation by WNYC radio noted, is one of 23 that deem police misconduct records to be confidential; the only way to obtain such documents is through litigation in the course of a criminal case or civil lawsuit — and even then, the material often must be kept out of the public eye.
This isn’t apt to change any time soon: A California Senate bill aimed at making misconduct and disciplinary information available to the public died in committee last month.
“Police in California shouldn’t be able to operate as if they’re the CIA,” said Chauncee Smith, a legislative advocate with the ACLU of California, which sponsored the proposed legislation, SB 1286, along with the California Newspaper Publishers Association and other groups.
Authored by San Francisco Democrat Mark Leno, the bill would have offered a much clearer view of how law enforcement agencies handle serious allegations of misconduct; in the case of a controversial police shooting, for example, the public would have been entitled obtain to the entire investigative file compiled by police detectives, though any personal data would have been redacted. The legislation also would have allowed the public to learn if any discipline was imposed on the officers involved in the incident.
The bill met resistance from law enforcement organizations from around the state, including the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs and the Peace Officers Research Association of California. In a report to its members, PORAC said greater transparency would endanger officers, making them targets for people seeking revenge in the aftermath of police shootings and would generate more “mistrust” of officers. . .