By Bill Farrar Director of Public Policy & Communications
No names. No video. No charges.
That has become the common refrain from law enforcement whenever someone dies at the hands of police in Virginia.
Last week, Roanoke County Police Chief Howard Hall and Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Leach sang the familiar song at a news conference regarding the Feb. 26 police killing of 18-year-old Kionte Spencer.
Snippets of police dash-cam video were shown to selected reporters and county officials prior to the news conference. Chief Hall, however, stuck to the larger script, maintaining his position that no video will be released to the public even though the criminal and administrative investigations are now closed.
Chief Hall also continues to refuse to name the two officers who shot and killed Mr. Spencer as he walked along a public road early in the evening while carrying a broken BB pistol. Mr. Spencer’s family and others believe that he did not respond to police commands to drop the weapon because he was wearing headphones. Officers told investigators they shot Mr. Spencer when he pointed the gun at them after two Taser jolts didn’t work. At least one reporter who viewed the redacted video could not corroborate the officers’ statements that Mr. Spencer raised his gun.
Tearing up at the news conference, the chief cited concern for the officers’ privacy and safety to justify continued secrecy.
At the same time, Chief Hall apparently has little if any regard for Mr. Spencer’s privacy, indiscreetly recounting details of the dead young man’s “very troubled life” and revealing confidential information about Spencer’s alleged “mental health issues” at the news conference. We won’t go into those details here because, despite what the chief seems to think, they are irrelevant to why Mr. Spencer was killed.
Regarding safety, the ACLU of Virginia respects the need to assure that every officer involved in a police shooting – and the officers’ families – are safe from harm. Nonetheless, we believe the names of officers involved in a shooting should be released no later than 48 hours after the incident.
Like the law enforcement author of an article in The Police Chief, the self-described “professional voice of law enforcement,” we believe that this is the “best policy” for all law enforcement agencies to follow, particularly if they wish to earn the trust of the communities and people they police. Two days is more than enough time for any law enforcement agency to do what is reasonably necessary to ensure that any real issues regarding the safety of an officer or his or her family are addressed.
Finally, the chief and the commonwealth’s attorney said the officers won’t be charged with any crimes. Lacking names and video, how is the public to trust that this is the right decision?
Kionte Spencer is one of 11 people police have shot dead in Virginia so far in 2016. Yet, not one of the involved officers’ names has been released and none have been charged.
Perhaps all of the officers acted appropriately and none should have been charged. But when video evidence exists, why not let the public see what happened? What is the point of having dash- and body-cams for accountability if the police hide behind exceptions granted by the Commonwealth’s notoriously flaccid Freedom of Information Act in nearly every situation?
If police want the public’s trust when critical incidents occur, it’s time they start trusting the public with information and knowledge about their actions and decisions, particularly when someone is injured or killed as a result of those actions.
If Virginia law enforcement agencies are unable to shift from a culture of secrecy to a culture of transparency voluntarily, it’s time for the legislature to dial back the exceptions to FOIA that facilitate the secrecy culture or for local elected officials to impose positive disclosure policies on departments within their jurisdiction.
It’s time for responsible officials to require public disclosure of the names of officers involved in critical incidents within 48 hours.
It’s time to explore whether the public’s interest in constitutional community policing would be better protected if law enforcement agencies were required to make records of such incidents (including video recordings) public as soon as decisions are made about administrative or prosecutorial actions.
And, perhaps it’s time to mandate that all police-caused fatalities be investigated by a state-level, multi-disciplinary team akin to the team that investigates all child fatalities to ensure that every death is reviewed impartially with a view toward better education, prevention and training of law enforcement statewide and prosecution of responsible parties is initiated where indicated.
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