The good news is that the indefatigable journalists of The Salt Lake Tribune and Frontline are building a trove of records, and pushing for the release of crucial information, in their ongoing efforts to bring the life-and-death decisions made by our law enforcement agencies into the full light of day.
The bad news is that they have to go to a lot of trouble and expense to do that, because the state of Utah does not require that such information be reported by all local law enforcement agencies and kept in a common, public database that is easily accessible to state officials, academics, journalists, activists, the public at large.
This is information that by right belongs to the people who pay for police services and in whose name those officers act. Sometimes with deadly force.
The worst news is that some in the law enforcement community fail to understand that complete transparency in the workings of policing our streets is to the benefit of both our officers and the communities they serve.
Too many police officers, police unions and the politicians who claim to support them do not see that secrecy, a you-can’t-handle-the-truth attitude, can deepen the divide between police and the public. And that it can undermine public trust in the whole criminal justice system and leave many people, especially people of different ethnic and socioeconomic status, reluctant to cooperate with police even when it makes their neighborhoods less safe.
It is the lack of trust, of transparency, of mutual cooperation, that has created a feeling of rivalry between some in law enforcement and some in the community. And it is that poisonous atmosphere that has created demands to defund, or even abolish, necessary police agencies, without thinking the matter through to realize the chaos that would follow if the police really did go away.
Tribune reporters have been working for a long time, now with the support of the PBS documentary producers at Frontline, to build a database of cases where police officers shoot civilians. The last report based on that information establishes that members of minority communities — mostly Black and Hispanic people — are shot by police in numbers well beyond their proportion of the total population.
Nobody in certain neighborhoods — in Salt Lake City or elsewhere — needed an in-depth journalistic project to tell them that.
But state agencies that oversee local departments, and elected officials who oversee the agencies, do need that data, broken down and cross-referenced in as much granular detail as possible. They need it to help them understand what is happening and what might be done to de-escalate potentially violent encounters and keep the peace.
And our state leaders, working with our law enforcement community, should have gathered that information itself rather than having the newspaper do so. It still should.
What we do know has gotten the attention of police and politicians, who generally agree the numbers do not look good and we must build trust. Answers include not just officer training but a deeper understanding of just how much prejudicial thoughts pervade all of society, not just among police officers, and that can lead to misjudgments and death.
(And if that sounds too much like critical race theory, well, that’s why nobody should be banning that school of thought.)
Also, the internal reports made by police officers in the wake of fatal shootings and other incidents should remain available to the public. The documents, known as Garrity reports, are the statements officers are required to make to their superiors that tell the truth, the whole truth, about what happened up to the moment shots were fired.
Those statements are, by law, not part of any criminal investigation into whether a police shooting was legally justified. The legal theory is that for the district attorney to have access to those reports in a criminal investigation would amount to a violation of an officer’s Fifth Amendment rights not to incriminate him or herself.
In criminal proceedings, that theory is valid. In the necessity for the public to understand what their sworn law enforcement officers are doing with their legal and lethal power, the secrecy is not justified. Especially when they tell a very different story of what occurred.
The Tribune was granted the right to receive Garrity interviews and other similar statements from three local police agencies — in Cottonwood Heights, West Jordan and Washington County — reporting on cases of police shootings in those jurisdictions. In each case the Utah State Records Committee, arbiters of the Utah Government Records Access and Management Act, has ruled in favor of openness. In each cast the municipalities have appealed those rulings to the court system, dragging the newspaper and the public’s need to know into expensive legal battles against public agencies with staff attorneys and deeper pockets.
There are narrow instances when ongoing police investigations demand that information is kept close to the vest. But that fact should not be allowed to shroud what law enforcement is doing with its power.
Those who set the standards for our law enforcement agencies, from the Legislature on down, must make it clear that full transparency on the part of police agencies is good for the public, for the victims of crime and, most of all, for the ability of police officers to do their crucial and dangerous job.