Last week, a Minnesota jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man whose killing ignited nationwide protests. A few days before the verdict — a fraught moment in the national conversation about law enforcement — the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and Bangor Daily News released the first in a series of stories about a lack of transparency in how the Maine State Police handle officer misconduct. Nothing revealed in that reporting was as egregious as what happened that May day, when Floyd spent his final moments pinned to the pavement. Nonetheless, the articles showed that state police have failed to provide what so many Americans were looking for in the Chauvin verdict: accountability.
When the average citizen gets in trouble, it is a matter of public record. Get caught driving drunk, shoplifting or punching someone and you could end up with your name in the weekly police log, fines or jail time and a record that could affect your future ability to get a job or an apartment. When a trooper gets in trouble internally, all the public gets to see is a redacted or vague discipline report that leaves more questions than answers. How can the public trust that an agency is upholding its own high standards if details about why an officer is disciplined are kept private? Those in publicly funded positions of power forgo some of the privacy rights afforded to the rest of us.
Being open about those instances in which officers mess up is not about casting law enforcement in a bad light. It is about shining the light at all. Government accountable only to itself is undemocratic.
Upon his recent retirement, Hancock County Sheriff’s Detective Stephen McFarland, a man whose dedication and commitment to the job drew wide praise, reflected on the pendulum of public opinion when it comes to law enforcement. He said, “I think there’s some misunderstanding by the community about the heart of law enforcement. They get the perception, I think, that there’s widespread corruption and racial injustice. There is some. But to have it as broad-based as they believe, to paint a whole profession with that brush, is not accurate.”
He’s right, and greater transparency surrounding when, why and how officers are disciplined could help dispel some of those perceptions.
Every day officers put their lives at risk, but they also hold lives in their hands. In 2019, forty-four law enforcement officers in the country were killed by firearms in the line of duty. The same year, 999 people — nearly 23 times the number of slain officers — were shot and killed by police. The Washington Post arrived at that tally by cataloging news accounts, social media posts and police reports. Why? Because there is no comprehensive federal database of police shootings. Reporting by police departments is voluntary and many don’t do it. It’s hard to have a meaningful discussion about the use of deadly force nationally without that kind of data.
We all need police to be the good guys and by and large they are. But even heroes are human. People can get careless or callous; angry or afraid. Decisions made in a split second can go horribly wrong.
All officers must be accountable to their own moral code, the rigor of their agency’s standards and to the public whom they serve and protect. When they fall short, we should know about it.