The Charlotte police finally released more video in the Keith Scott shooting, but only under intense national pressure. And the video that was released, as the ACLU of North Carolina has pointed out, raised more questions than it answered. My colleagues there called for the police to “stop releasing information to the public on a piecemeal basis and disclose all remaining body and dash camera footage, as well as audio of dispatch recordings” surrounding the shooting.
As I argued last week, release of video shows the public that a department is committed to letting the chips fall where they may rather than closing ranks to protect its officers regardless of what they may have done. There may be many other factors involved, but as some have noted, there have been no sustained street demonstrations in Tulsa, where Terence Crutcher was killed just days before the Charlotte shooting, and where the police quickly made public what they had.
Nick Selby, a Texas law enforcement officer and author who frequently writes about policing issues, pointed out this weekend that some cities do seem to understand that, as he put it, “cops sharing information about officer involved shootings is the single most important thing they must do to keep or earn the trust of their communities.” The prime example of how to do it right, he says, is Las Vegas.
Vegas had a lot of issues, and when they worked with DOJ one of the best suggestions ever was that they do a brain dump 48 hours after an officer involved shooting: here is everything we know now: names, video, 911 calls, transcripts, interviews…everything.
It was Walter Katz who first told me about Vegas, and when I looked in to it he was exactly right. I’ve spoken with many surprised officers and analysts in Vegas and they all agree: when Vegas started the 48-hour brain-dumps it bought them, over time, the respect of the community and the media, and the trust of both—to the extent that now, when they must say something like, “Oh, sorry, we will release that in a couple of days, we had some challenges,” they are believed, and people do not get upset.
Attending numerous conferences on body cameras and talking to a variety of law enforcement officers, I have long perceived that the savviest police chiefs understand this already: that transparency is their friend. But there are other dynamics pushing the other way: police departments are bureaucracies that, like all bureaucracies, have a reflexive tendency to try to control information; an insular, in-group/out-group psychology can lead departments to close ranks; and sometimes it’s not actually the police but prosecutors who resist making video public.
My colleagues at the ACLU of Nevada point out that the police department in Las Vegas has a detailed policy on disclosure and confirm that it is indeed commendable on transparency overall. Though, it is not perfect; in one recent case of police abuse, for example, the city has paid a $200,000 settlement to the victim—but still not released bodycam video of the incident.
But the important question is not how perfect Las Vegas is, but whether more police departments begin to understand that the overall vision of the “48-hour brain dump” is a much smarter way for them to proceed than what we’ve seen in Charlotte. Transparency can be especially crucial for communities of color, who have too often been kept in the dark by the agencies that serve them. In the end, over the medium to long term, attempts to stonewall community demands for transparency are simply not going to hold water for police departments—but they still face a choice on whether to embrace transparency now, or be dragged into it kicking and screaming over time, potentially creating a lot of unnecessary suspicion, tension, and heartbreak along the way.