When it comes to police-involved shootings, there are simply no easy answers on how much information to release and when.
There are privacy concerns for the deceased’s family, especially in the age of body cameras on police.
For the officers involved, there is the concern that rushing out details could lead to an incomplete and inaccurate picture, while withholding them plants doubt in the community that the police have something to hide.
And in any legal proceeding arising from the incident, inconsistencies between initial reports and subsequent evidence can come back to bite all sides.
But as a newspaper, we tend to come down on the side of as much transparency as early in the process that is consistent with what police and bystanders know first-hand. These are the primary source materials that allow the public access to what the police know and without a judgment on whether procedure was followed or laws were broken. Leave it to a more deliberative independent investigation to try to reconcile conflicting evidence and piece together a coherent narrative that supports legal findings.
That said, we’d be remiss if we didn’t call out the very different approaches taken by two separate law enforcement agencies in the wake of recent fatal officer shootings. The shooting death of an unarmed motorist by a U.S. Forest Service officer in Oak Creek Canyon Jan. 5 was met with a blackout on all but the most general details. What information initially came out was through the family attorney for the deceased Kansas man after he talked briefly with the FBI about the status of the investigation. No incident report from the Forest Service was forthcoming, and even a report by the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, which did not include an interview with the USFS officer, took a formal public records request by the Daily Sun.
In contrast, the Flagstaff Police Department has established an open records page on its website for officer-involved shootings that is transparent to a fault. Aside from blacking out footage of the body, police camera video of the shooting last Friday in Plaza Vieja is a comprehensive lesson in real time on the pressure to make split-second, life-or-death decisions that police face when guns are involved. From the first 911 call by a near-hysterical neighbor to the final, frustrated expletive by the shooting officer after pleading with the suspect for several minutes to drop his gun before firing his weapon, the videos are raw and searing evidence that living up to the Flagstaff motto “Serve and Protect” is no simple task for police.
And even though it is said that photos don’t lie, when the light is dim and the situation is hectic bodycams don’t always tell the public what police might have seen more clearly or at least differently. In this case, the suspect is not shown clearly, but in most of the reports filed by the officers who surrounded him, a handgun is seen. But the officers’ reports and interviews with neighbors watching from windows have different descriptions of whether it was being pointed, waved or even twirled. And when the gun was found, it wasn’t next to the body but in the bed of the suspect’s pickup nearby – was it tossed there by the suspect in the dark before the shots or did it land there as the suspect fell?
Some of those questions may have to wait for an independent investigation. But what the release of so much material has done is provide a common set of documents for police to hold discussions with the family and the neighborhood. In this case, the dead man turns out to be 78 years old and known to neighbors as forgetful to the point of disorientation and possible dementia. Would knowing that in advance have altered the way police responded to the public safety threat? And for future cases, how could they have accessed more information – either at the scene after de-escalating the confrontation or in advance through more reporting by neighbors about their concerns.
Hindsight is always 20/20, and it must be wrenching to the officers involved and the entire Flagstaff department as they learn more about the deceased. But based on the track record of Chief Treadway and his commitment to compassionate policing, we’re confident the police department will not only review the incident in depth but share with the public their findings and recommendations. That’s not the case with the U.S Forest Service to date – we’re hoping that will change.