The Importance of Police Accountability

police shootingWhenever police use deadly force there are always questions:

“How do we really know what happened?” How can we trust police to investigate themselves?”

“We understand the police may have acted legally, but should they have?”

“Should they have taken that person’s life?”

“Couldn’t they have done something else to handle the situation?”

In my state of Wisconsin, one aggrieved parent of a young man who died in police custody, is taking action by proposing a state law that would require the following:

An Independent Analysis of AB 409

“This bill requires each law enforcement agency to have a written policy, subject to the approval of the law enforcement standards board, regarding the handling of deaths involving a law enforcement officer. The policy must require a team of investigators consisting of three individuals, two of whom must be from an agency that does not employ an officer involved in the death being investigated, to prepare a report and provide it to the district attorney of the county in which the death occurred. The district attorney must give the report to the board for the review of officer−involved deaths, which this bill creates and attaches to the Department of Justice. The board must review the report to ensure it addresses all aspects of the death and may request further information from the investigative team. The board may then submit recommendations to the district attorney and may forward the report to any person responsible for the discipline of a law enforcement officer involved in the death.”

The board shall be composed of 5 members as follows:

  1. A retired or reserve judge.
  2. A sheriff, chief deputy sheriff, chief of police or deputy chief of police.
  3. An assistant state attorney general.
  4. An academic in criminal justice.
  5. A former district or assistant district attorney.

The members of the board are to be appointed by the state attorney general in staggered 4−year terms.

In support of the bill, I am providing the following statement which is about the importance of building a higher level of trust and support in the community (which is vitally necessary for police to have). This trust and support comes by means of police being more accountable.

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Members of the Committee:

     I served as chief of police in Madison for over 20 years. After my retirement, I went to seminary and now serve as a member of the clergy assigned to a church in Waukesha County. Over the years, I have written articles and books on the important task of policing and how it must improve. I have found, since my retirement, that I have gained a greater sense of objectivity and a better perspective about police. Don’t  get me wrong, I love policing and it is my love of it, and those who serve as police officers, that compels me to be here today.

     A chief of police has two important and sometimes conflicting responsibilities — his or her own officers and members of the community. He or she must, on one hand, be the leader of the police  and, at the same time, the chief of and for the community. It is in the use of deadly force that these responsibilities come into conflict. If the chief, in a questionable shooting, decides in favor of the officer, the chief must be able to demonstrate to the community and convince them that the shooting was both lawful, within the stated policy of the department, morally defensible, and consistent with training.

     On the other hand, if the chief finds the officer was at fault, even though the shoot was within the law (which, by the way, is quite broad), but not in accordance with department policy or training, there will be a backlash from many within the police department. This backlash could severely restrict or restrain progress within any police department.

     I have had chiefs present this dilemma to me. My answer to them was that you must make the choice — the community or the department. The proposed legislation before you today takes that choice out of the hands of a chief and presents it to an independent board of peers and colleagues outside the police department. If I was still serving as a chief, I would welcome and support this legislation.

     I believe AB 409 will help, not hinder, police. Why? Because when police are viewed by citizens to have acted appropriately it builds trust and respect for them. It is the maintenance of that trust and respect which enables them to effectively carry out their duties with the support of the community. When police are seen by the community as accountable, they are supported. When they are not, that support dwindles and diminishes their effectiveness. Without public support, no police department can effectively do its job. Public support is an absolute and necessary part of policing a free society.

     Today, we are a connected, information-laden society. Information, both good and bad, flows through our daily lives whether we like it or not. We cannot go about our daily work without being subjected to this flow of information, much of which involves our police in one way or another. This  information includes videos on the internet, from YouTube to Facebook, depicting police engaging in many questionable behaviors. There is a constant supply and posting of these videos which have been obtained under public record laws and others recorded on personal “smart phones.” Today, almost anyone can be an investigator or reporter, as many of you well know.

     Nothing deteriorates the public’s trust and support of police more than when police take a life. When this occurs I can tell you that there is always questions, always suspicion on the part of many citizens. The situation is always more volatile when the death involves a youth or person of color. Historically, we have seen that these situations can result in civil disorder and damaged police and community relations.

     When deadly force is used by police, the questions are always these: How can police investigate a fellow officer when they have to work together and depend on one another for their personal safety? How can police be objective in such a situation?

     The hard fact is that they cannot. And neither can a district attorney who also must work daily with the police and who will naturally form bonds with them. And once having made a decision against police will find it surface again as an election issue.

     An open discussion of this bill, listening to the voices of both those who have suffered the loss of a loved one by police, and those who hold the public’s trust as police officers, will go a long way to help this proposal become law. I can assure you that really good police officers are never fearful of this kind of oversight and would welcome it.

     Throughout my career, and years since, I have reviewed many proposals to increase police accountability. This, by far, is the most reasonable and achievable.

     I urge your support of AB 409.

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You, too, can support this bill, CLICK HERE.

If you live in Wisconsin,

CLICK HERE and you can find a letter and a supporting document.

If you agree, print, sign and send the letter and supporting document to this address:

Committee on Criminal Justice 

c/o Representative and Chair, Joel Kleefisch 

Room 307 North 
State Capitol 
P.O. Box 8952 
Madison, WI 53708