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Transparency needed in investigations of police

I have not sat on a grand jury any time in my life. I am disinclined, having not pored through records, nor listened to dozens of witnesses, to second-guess the difficult decisions these jurors have had to make.

HOWEVER. There is a clear problem of trust going on, and it stems from a couple different sources.

1) Grand Juries are usually secret. There are good reasons for this. Simply investigating whether a crime might have occurred, which is what Grand Juries do, collects a lot of evidence which could put people's lives at risk, or could be embarrassing. You want folks to feel free to talk. And you don't want the person being investigated to get unduly smeared.

However, the flip side of secrecy is that the lack of transparency can lead to a loss of trust. Clearly, in the two incidents discussed recently, many people who have no idea what went on in the GJ's or what evidence was presented, know, they just KNOW, an injustice was committed! And, because they have no opportunity to see the evidence, well, they are prevented from seeing anything that might change their mind.

The purpose of a Grand Jury is not to rubber-stamp a prosecutor's decision. If Grand Juries virtually always return an indictment, there are several possible explanations. a) Prosecutors don't submit to a GJ unless they think they can get an indictment. b) GJs actually do just rubber-stamp indictments. In the two recent cases of police under scrutiny by a GJ, it was political pressure that got the cases even that far - these cases were pro-forma the other way, almost stunts, to try to placate the public, but were done knowing there probably was not enough evidence to get an indictment. The final possibility is that everyone who sits on a GJ loves loves loves cops. This seems unlikely. It might also be that incidents involving officers are much more thoroughly investigated, and that officers generally act with restraint - it's hard to get indictments because they did not act wrongly.

But again, the general public has no idea what's going on. With basically all GJ proceedings secret, all the public has to judge on is the statistics: few police are indicted, almost everyone else is.

Since no information is available, the general public has no basis on which to decide whether to agree or disagree with the GJ results.

And in the case of police officers, this is a serious problem for public trust of the government.

2) Investigations of police killings are done internally

The police investigate crimes, so I suppose from a certain sense they are the group who you would call to investigate a potential murder by a police officer.

Also, police unions are extremely protective of officers. There is a tendency to "circle the wagons" whenever an incident like this occurs.

So police officers are investigated by police officers. Sometimes it's done by an "Internal Affairs" division, which is supposed to give the appearance of independence, but which are staffed by other cops, probably ones the accused has known and worked with for years.

I humbly submit that this is all horribly, horribly wrong.

Forget perception. The potential for actual conflict of interest is so high with the current system, I cannot blame anyone for not trusting the results of internal police investigations.

3) Media hype

It is impossible for the public to fairly evaluate a case through the media. News reporters search out the absolute most incendiary tidbit of information - even if it's been manufactured whole cloth - and put it on a 24/7 news cycle, apparently without much regard for whether it's true or not. This means the public is probably already going to be hopelessly biased on a case before any kind of investigation has been done, certainly long before a trial.

So after months of incomplete, inaccurate information being presented on CNN or Fox, when a Grand Jury makes a decision that seems to fly in the face of the conclusion people drew based on only the media, this makes everyone actually involved in the case look bad.

What would I do?

First off, I think police-involved killings should be investigated by a completely independent level of government. If a city cop is being investigated, the State level should do it. If a state cop, the Feds. If Federal, prosecute from the State in which the incident occurred.

Everything possible must be done to ensure no potential for actual or perceived conflict of interest. The investigators should not know the accused, or have worked for the accused's department.

We could go even further, and create a new, independent Constitutional body whose sole purpose is to hold public officials accountable to the law, which would investigate and prosecute solely public sector actors.

Second, all such investigations should be completely transparent. While I often loathe the media, you cannot have freedom without a free press, as bad as it often is. All materials related to the investigation should, by default, be publicly available from the get-go, during and after the investigation, and should be made secret only on approval by a judge for some specific, important purpose. We all have an interest and a right in being able to see for ourselves that the government is acting within the law.

This is, after all, an investigation not of a private citizen who has rights to privacy, but of a government agent acting in performance of their official duty. The value of transparency and trust in this process outweighs the usual concerns, because these actions involve the official use of force. We absolutely have to scrutinize this as honestly and regularly as possible.

It would be nice if the press would, you know, exhibit some responsibility and act as if someone's life is on the line. Which it is. I'm not going to list the things press should do to assure accuracy. They already know what they're supposed to do, they already know the rules of good journalism. They just ignore them. So, to the press I say - start taking your responsibility seriously.

We have to be careful, in all of this, not to make it impossible for officers to do their job. Being a police officer is really difficult. You have to be able to make snap decisions that cause others to live or die. Police are a critical, fundamental requirement of a free society. We don't want them to be second-guessing themselves when someone's life is on the line.

But they have legal sanction to use force - we the people have delegated retribution to the police. This is a terrible responsibility, and a dangerous one. It deserves the absolute highest level of oversight, independent investigation, and we need to do everything possible so that the public trusts that police forces are held accountable to the law.


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