Nearly every day, headlines splash the latest in the ongoing and escalating separation between the police and the people they have sworn to serve and protect. Police shootings have skyrocketed, videos of excessive force fill Facebook and YouTube, and concerned citizens of every color are staging protests.
Perhaps the most tragic of the stories are the innocent bystanders: 55-year-old Bettie Jones was shot while opening the door for police in Chicago; Ciara Myer, 12, killed by accident when a constable stopped by to serve an eviction notice; and 6-year-old Jeremy Mardis, shot 5 times while officers pursued his father’s car.
The Washington Post estimates that 990 people were fatally shot by the police in 2015, and 274 so far this year. The number keeps climbing, but for the first time, there is finally hope that the officers will be held accountable for these deaths.
WHY ACCOUNTABILITY WAS OUT OF REACH
Recently, I wrote about the problem of police brutality in America. One of the ways to lessen this problem is to improve accountability. One of the largest challenges is that data is very difficult to gather. Take the number of police shootings, for example. Though laws require states to report the number of people shot, the states don’t have that information...the local police departments do.
And the FBI database kept on these statistics is considered misleading and inaccurate. FBI director James Covey lamented in February 2015, “It’s ridiculous that I can’t tell you how many people were shot by the police last week, last month, last year.” While lawmakers and advocacy groups work to change the issues with gathering data, new technology leads to hope for accountability for officers in the field.
TRAINING RECORDS RAISE SERIOUS CONCERNS
On March 27, 2016, Winslow, AZ police officer Austin Shipley stopped 27-year-old Loreal Tsingine on suspicion of shoplifting. Though she was armed with only a pair of scissors, Shipley shot and killed her after a brief struggle.
However, a glimpse into Shipley’s records show serious concerns about his ability to work as an officer. In fact, in 2013, a day before his training ended, Corporal Ron Chisholm of the Winslow police department recommended Shipley not be retained. Chisholm said that Shipley did not listen to his training officers, and was too quick to reach for his weapon. He warned, “If this behavior continues, it is going to get someone hurt.”
Another corporal, Jason Therman, said “Shipley wrongly believed his badge gave him license to harass the public and ridicule citizens of the small northeastern Arizona city.”
Shipley was hired in 2012, and finished training in 2013. In the three years he served on the police force for Winslow, he was disciplined twice and suspended for using too much force against a teenage girl.
Questions are being raised about the decision to allow Shipley to work as an officer, after a list of reasons Chisholm compiled, including “integrity issues", "inability to follow the chain of command", "lack of conducting a proper investigation", "fails to control suspects when making an arrest", and "continues to falsify reports". The case is currently under investigation, and Shipley remains on administrative leave.
BODY CAMS LEAD TO INDICTMENT AND HOPE OF ACCOUNTABILITY
Though until recently, police shootings rarely lead to charges against the officer, there is hope that it will change. Many people would like to see restrictions on officers as part of a solution, and there is some evidence that body cams are the way to go. And this does seem to be promising.
When Mesa, Arizona, officer Mitch Brailsford shot and killed the unarmed Daniel Shaver on January 18, 2016, the entire incident was caught on camera. Shaver, a father of two who was intoxicated but otherwise cooperative, is heard on camera begging the officer not to shoot. After review of the body cam evidence, as well as witness and officer testimony, Brailsford was fired and charged with second degree murder in Shaver’s death. And another recent case in Cincinnati, Ohio, shows how a cop’s body cam lead directly to his prosecution for police brutality and murder.
43-year-old Samuel DeBose of Cincinnati was pulled over by University of Cincinnati Officer Ray Tensing on July 19, 2015. Minutes later, DeBose was dead, shot in the head by Tensing. Tensing’s body cam captured the exchange, proving that DeBose did nothing to antagonize the officer, and Tensing was indicted for murder.
The body cams are promising, but they aren’t a perfect solution. Eric Garner’s death in 2014 was caught on camera. Garner was stopped by officers in New York City on suspicion of illegally selling cigarettes. The arresting officer used an illegal chokehold on the 43-year-old man, causing his death. The entire incident was recorded, and the medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, but a Grand Jury did not charge the officer. Later, the City of New York settled out of court with Garner’s family for 5.9 million dollars.
Police officers need to be held accountable for their actions, and there is finally something being done about it. Changes in reporting laws can bring greater clarity, while body cameras and scrutiny of officer’s records may change the way the prosecution of police officers is handled. Although the challenge of enforcing police accountability has seemed insurmountable in the past years, it now seems that the tides may be turning.