The shootings of unarmed citizens by police just keep coming — Ferguson, Los Angeles, Pasco and now Madison. Sadly, they will keep coming, as the men and women who serve us in law enforcement are dealing with a more dangerous country. Mental illness is a common feature of these confrontations; a gun has become more of an expectation than a worry.
Better training and technology both hold promise for preventing these situations — body cameras are coming, and nonlethal weapons are gaining support. But what happens when a shooting does happen and the reasons are muddled? That's where transparency can help. Consider the events in Ferguson, Missouri, that launched a national discussion and fueled so much outrage. After the local jurisdiction and the federal government separately cleared Officer Darren Wilson, both Prosecutor Robert McCulloch and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder held press conferences; investigative reports were released to the public. Additionally, practically every Missouri public official spoke out.
Compare that to the report exonerating Spokane Police officers in the shooting of Stephen Corkery. Obviously these cases are very, very different — when a desperate man steps into the line of fire holding what looks like a gun, as Corkery did, police are justified in defending themselves. The difference we should focus on is in how the two events have been explained.
As reported in this week's cover story, Spokane was told late on a Friday, via a mistake-riddled press release, that the officers were cleared. The Prosecutor's office did not hold a press conference, and no investigative report was released. Trust was eroded when it could have been shored up. The officers involved certainly deserved more notice that they were doing their jobs correctly, and we, the citizens, deserve more, too.
We've been having this discussion since Otto Zehm was killed. And we've made progress. But communication has to improve, and it will if we...
- Stop blaming victims. One of the first things that seems to come out about a shooting victim is how he had a long record, or she was high. Those things will be part of any investigation, but to push that out as a first impression is prejudicial.
- Be transparent. Release the full investigative report and answer questions in an open forum.
If not corrected, this setback may recommend a new course. Perhaps the recent White House Task Force report is right and we do need a truly independent investigative apparatus for these cases. We should be able to do this locally, but we're not there yet.♦