Jason Van Dyke guilty verdict reinforces need for transparent policing
A jury on Friday convicted white Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder in the 2014 shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald. (Oct. 5)
Make more information about bad officers, video immediately available to the public. Follow California’s lead; we shouldn’t have to shame law enforcement.
We are living in a time when public trust is at an all-time low.
Former police officer Jason Van Dyke’s conviction only hours ago of second-degree murder and aggravated battery in the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald presents a vivid example of how that shattered trust goes beyond partisan fighting and the failures of corporate institutions and seeps into our daily lives.
It took more than a year for the public to get access to a video of Van Dyke shooting McDonald multiple times in the back. And it was only after protests over the shooting that charges against the officer were filed, the same day the video was released.
And the withholding of vital police information from the public continues to be a problem across the country. In California, police released video of Officer Joseph Mateu fatally shooting Sahleem Tindle three times in the back only after Tindle’s brother leaked a clip of the video himself. An investigation into Mateu’s use of force is currently underway by the Alameda County district attorney’s office.
The American people need to trust that police will be fair, open and accountable. It’s especially hard to rebuild that trust in these increasingly challenging times.
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Force departments to shine light on bad conduct
The answer is sharing more information, not less. That includes law enforcement agencies providing the public and prosecutors more access to data that can be uncomfortable or difficult, such as information on police officers with records of misconduct or dishonesty. Transparency must be an integral part of addressing this crisis.
Fortunately, policies that increase transparency and accountability are gaining national momentum.
Eleven states relatively recently enacted laws requiring police departments to collect and report data related to officer-involved shootings and use of force. Just this week in California, the governor signed two bills that aim to shine light on law enforcement. One bill will allow public access to police misconduct records including officer shootings, major force incidents and cases of dishonesty while on duty, thereby ending California’s system of secrecy that stands in contrast to most other states.
Another bill will require departments to release footage of most officer shootings and other serious uses of force immediately, unless doing so would substantially interfere with an active investigation. These reforms will better align police practices with the values of governmental transparency and accountability that California voters have overwhelmingly supported. And that’s exactly the kind of information needed to rebuild a public trust that’s been eroded over past years by police shootings and scandals.
Prosecutors are also taking steps to increase transparency and police accountability. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner recently said she wouldn’t accept cases from a list of 28 officers whom she had reason to believe have credibility problems.
And last month Kansas City prosecutor Mark Dupree instituted a policy requiring officer-involved shootings to be investigated by an independent agency — noting the inherent concerns that arise when a police department is asked to investigate its own officers’ misconduct.
This approach aligns with a similar one embraced by the San Francisco district attorney’s office with the creation of an internal independent police investigations bureau that staffs police shooting cases with independent investigators.
Van Dyke case is exception
Reforms such as the recently signed bills in California are doubly significant because they can also help district attorneys achieve justice in ongoing investigations.
If prosecuting attorneys have access to information regarding officer misconduct or dishonesty issues, they can make complete (and better) assessments about officers who should — or should not — be used as witnesses or trusted in decisions to charge and file cases. Doing so will help ensure the integrity of criminal investigations, and just outcomes.
Transparency serves everyone: The citizens who need and deserve to trust their local police, prosecutors who are seeking justice for their communities, and police officers who cannot do their jobs without having the faith of those they serve. Indeed, public safety is reliant on the community trusting the police enough to report crimes and participate in investigations. We are all safer when public trust in the justice system is strong.
As today’s verdict for Van Dyke makes clear, transparency — which in this case, only came after public demands — is a crucial step toward justice.
But the case is also a reminder of the justice that never comes for some families, even after public demands. Our crisis of trust must be rebuilt by police and prosecutors working together — being transparent with one another and the public they serve.
Miriam Aroni Krinsky spent 15 years as a federal prosecutor and is the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a national network of elected prosecutors committed to new thinking and innovation.
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