Critics argue that it takes too long to get information in officer-involved shooting cases – if information is ever made available to the public. While we agree the presence of a citizen video from a scene should not be the catalyst for a rush to legal judgment and that investigation with the needed time should take place, law enforcement around the country should do a better job of getting basics to people in cases where their actions are in question.
Time after time in the highest profile cases, it seems that incidents are unknown until a video surfaces. And when it does, law enforcement has no information to provide “pending an investigation.” No reports or documents are made available.
Compare that to other kinds of cases. When officers respond to an incident, they are required to fill out a report that is to be available to the public in a timely fashion. In South Carolina, the state’s Freedom of Information Act mandates the reports include “the nature, substance and location of any crime or alleged crime reported as having been committed.” And though information deemed to be investigatory can be redacted from incident reports, a report cannot be withheld from the public pending completion of an investigation as has been the case in some incidents elsewhere.
In nearly all instances, the agency that employs a particular law officer involved in an incident will not be the one to investigate. That is logical to avoid potential conflicts of interest. But transferring the investigation to an agency such as the State Law Enforcement Division in South Carolina does not mean no initial reports are available. Incident reports from other officers at the scene – or the involved officer – should exist and be available. They should be there to provide a basic narrative about what happened the same as in other incidents.
The reports are not about trying cases in the media. They are to inform the public of what is going on around them. And, importantly, they serve to protect people involved in incidents, both victims and accused. Public records of people being accused of crimes, arrested and taken to court are vital. Without such, we move toward a police state.
People should have confidence in law enforcement personnel doing their jobs professionally and according to the law and regulations. Most do. But when there is doubt – whether there is a video or not – there is a need for equal confidence that action will be taken.
Some call it transparency. We call it the law – and common sense. It is imperative that for law officers to perform their too-often-underappreciated jobs that the same laws that apply to everyone apply to them. And the public must believe and see that they do.
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