OPED: Transparency would 'protect and serve' public, police

Gloria Johns
Tribune News Service

Sooner or later, maybe today, there will be another fatal encounter between law enforcement and a citizen that will raise questions as to whether or not the police response was appropriate. Today, we have no way of knowing, and the Department of Justice, having oversight for law enforcement, can't provide answers the public deserves.

The situation leaves Americans to wonder: Is local law enforcement adequately trained to make good decisions in tense situations, or rather, due to inadequate training, are they improvising, case by case, to ensure that circumstances justify the end?

It isn't just a matter of subjective rules of engagement that expose officers to criticism; rather, it's the failure of the DOJ to require accurate recordkeeping and reporting that might change the perception of police as themselves being lawless.

Instead, police departments are left to their own devices, and new jargon has been introduced into the English language: "I feared for my life," "I thought he was reaching for something," or, "He made a furtive move."

And the public is forced to be satisfied with an anecdotal relationship with law enforcement that hinges on blind faith.

Federal data does exist, but it's poorly organized and of questionable use.

For example, information about how police departments perform can be found in reports issued by the DOJ, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Criminal Justice Information Service.

In addition, there are three data collections sources: the FBI, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service have "different data definitions, respondent universes, and data collection."

The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program is the channel through which state and local law enforcement agencies report arrests, the level of crime and types of crime. Toss in the National Incident-Based Reporting System, and you have a trickle-up relationship between local law enforcement and the DOJ that is characterized by tainted data.

Having deemed federal reporting "unreliable and incomplete," in 2015, The Washington Post created its Fatal Force Database. The project was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

Then, in 2016, perhaps having been embarrassed by the Post, then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch initiated steps whereby law enforcement would be required, under financial penalty, to report fatal encounters between the police and the public.

One would think, with fatal encounters usually showing up on the evening news, they'd be hard not to report.

Baltimore police officers form a line at the Inner Harbor on Pratt Street as protestors gathered, blocking traffic, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015 in Baltimore, as the first court hearing was set to begin in the case of six police officers criminally charged in the death of Freddie Gray.  Six police officers face charges that range from second-degree assault, a misdemeanor, to second-degree "depraved-heart" murder.   (Lloyd Fox/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

There is also the matter of training and whether or not the DOJ ensures it is adequate for all the roles we ask our police officers to play — counselor, negotiator, mediator and sometimes babysitter.

Again, according to reports from the DOJ, training criteria also varies from state to state, as does curricula, but on average, recruits are required to complete about 840 classroom hours of training.

In spite of the fact that more than 95 percent of police encounters with the public are of the non-lethal variety, community policing training generally only lasts about 40 hours and includes topics such as the history of community-oriented policing and the environmental causes of crime. In other words, the least amount of training goes to the most common encounter.

But, reworking the system doesn't fall entirely to the DOJ. Members of law enforcement should shake off their collective persecution complexes and accept that demanding a formal system of checks and balances that can be independently verified should not be taken personally.

In fact, police departments suffer more than the public when facts can't support what is probably the truth: By far, members of law enforcement carry out their jobs duties in a most commendable manner.

"Back the Blue" should not be a T-shirt slogan or a Facebook post, but a commitment that begins at the level of the Department of Justice. The DOJ has no excuse but to provide the appropriate training for law enforcement while also demanding clean data.

Without law enforcement willingly adopting the discipline of uniformity, how will we know whether "protect and serve" works in favor of citizens or police officers themselves?

— Gloria Johns is a freelance writer living in San Angelo, Texas. Contact her at glo_kel@yahoo.com.