Journalism and police oversight

[Below is the slightly amended text of my speech at the 2007 annual meeting of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement   in San Jose, Calif. At that time, I was a crime reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.]

Over the past year, I’ve done a lot of work on police use of force. That led me to discover NACOLE and the field of police oversight. Much of the work I’ve done has involved records and numbers. But it started with a grieving mother.

I had been on my police beat only about two months when a woman named Loretta Luke contacted the newspaper in March 2003. Her son, Stanley Bates, had been shot to death by a police officer a month earlier. The shooting happened on her front step. She was standing just inside the door when she heard the shots.

My newspaper had run only a brief story about the shooting. Ms. Luke was upset that we had quoted a police spokesperson as saying her son had charged at two police officers. She did not deny her son had a knife or that she herself had called the police because he was banging on her window. But she said he was too far away from the officers to have threatened them with the knife.

I wrote a story about her complaints and began regularly checking on the progress of the internal investigation of the incident. I could not get much information about the case until that investigation ended. Ultimately, it took a year for the department to decide the fire the officer who fired the shots.

In the course of following that case, I began collecting reports by an internal use of force review board regarding shootings dating back to 2001. I realize that fatal shootings  by DeKalb County police were happening more often, but those cases still represented a drop in the bucket of violent deaths in metro Atlanta. The newspaper did not pursue an overall story, but I kept collecting the use of force reports.

Those came in handy in 2006. After a steady stream of shootings by officers in the first half of the year, there were six in about six weeks in late summer. The public now was taking notice, and as the beat reporter I was being asked by my editors to explain the trend.

We had a big disadvantage in that none of the 2006 investigations were open to us. In fact, they still aren’t. But that may have been a blessing in disguise because it allowed me to look in detail at the shootings from 2001 through 2005. That’s something we might not have had the patience to do if we’d been digging into the details of the most recent cases.

There was no rigid methodology to this. I simply took every report, read it and made notes on the cover about anything I found notable. I found that quite often the internal review board faulted officers for violating procedures. And at one point, I realized I was making a note on a report cover about a violation of a procedure I had seen violated before. I made myself a note along the lines of “Do they learn from their mistakes?”

That became the overriding question of my work.

In November 2006, we published a story saying that those review boards had repeatedly reported mistakes by officers that fell into three categories I identified: shooting into moving vehicles; advancing into dangerous confrontations without backup; and mishandling suspects in custody. Many of these incidents involved fatalities. We also reported that most of the officers cited for violations received light discipline or no discipline. But in my mind the more interesting finding was that the department seemed to have no mechanism for learning from its mistakes. Indeed, a former chief who had approved a recommendation to fire an officer who shot into a moving car told me he never was told that there had been earlier incidents of the same policy violation. Incidentally, I quoted Dr. Samuel Walker [a NACOLE official] in that story about the need for analysis and training.

The story ran on Page 1 with a large headline and a very large illustration showing smoke rising off a bullet. I suppose that illustrates an advantage journalists have over government regulators – the ability to grab public attention. It’s safe to say the smoking bullet didn’t make me any new friends at the police department, but the reaction actually was very interesting, and I want to talk about that later.

All too often, I think, we in the media drop the ball after our splashy story with the smoking bullet on Page 1. In this case, I was blessed to have two editors who were committed to staying with the story and to exploring as much as we could how police use of force was regulated and how use of force policies might be improved. So before the end of 2006, we published another story about fatal police shootings were reviewed by the district attorney’s office. I won’t go into the details, but the story generally suggested that the review by the DA’s office could not be considered independent – at least not in the fact-gathering phase – not that there’s anything in Georgia law that requires a review at all.

By the time 2006 ended, the DeKalb police department had shot and killed 12 suspects, a record number and more than the numbers of some much larger departments. We have published stories detailing as much as we could about the circumstances of those cases.

[Outdated material deleted]

In the meantime, we have reported on a pattern of foot pursuits ending in fatal shootings; whether Tasers – which were banned by our police department in 2005 – might reduce shootings; and lessons we might learn from other jurisdictions which have tried civilian oversight of police.

Now I’d like to double back and talk about reaction inside the police department to my reporting. First, I should note that professional decorum is the norm in the DeKalb department – I didn’t expect any rude treatment and I didn’t get it. Instead, I had what I thought was a very interesting conversation with a sergeant I knew to be very dedicated, articulate and far less fearful of reporters than the norm. We bumped into each other in a lobby, and he told me was troubled by the story – the one with the smoking bullet on Page 1.

There had been some public demonstrations over the shootings, and some of the protesters had called the police cold-blooded killers. The sergeant was worried my story would underscore that belief. He told me about friends who had been severely shaken after having to pull the trigger. He told me about an officer who came into his office and broke down sobbing. The officer had a small child. Through his tears, he asked his sergeant if he could possibly explain to his child that Daddy had killed somebody.

Because we were acquainted, I could speak to him plainly. The story had talked about scenarios in which cops basically burst into houses to confront an armed suspect when they could have waited for SWAT and done it by the book. I said, “Sergeant, if there’s a threatening guy with a gun in a house, and I see you go in there without backup, and then I hear shots – well, I hope it’s the gunman who gets shot and not you. You shouldn’t violate policy, but that doesn’t mean I think you should get killed for it.”

I thought that was a pretty obvious sentiment, but the sergeant told me he felt a lot better that I said it. And judging from other emails I’ve gotten and comments posted under my stories on our website, I think there is some feeling among police officers that shoe who find fault with police use of force are in effect favoring violent suspects over police. Certainly, there is a strong feeling among some civilians that either bad guys shoot cops or cops shoot bad guys. End of analysis.

Several experts have told me cops don’t like somebody looking over their shoulders. Nobody does. You can say the same thing about my business. Newspapers that have installed ombudsmen – including The New York Times and Washington Post – have found their own reporters and editors resistant and sometimes downright hostile to them. There are some small moves being made in our business to say, “It’s OK to have a system that examines our mistakes and learns from them. It makes us better next time.” But it’s a struggle. Naturally, the stakes are much higher when we’re talking about police use of force. And I know many people inside the police business favor serious study of those issues. A commander in a large police academy sent me an email saying he was going to hand out that “smoking bullet” story to every one of his students and tell them to read it to learn how big mistakes get made.

On the flip side, what I often hear from advocates of civilian review is that they want to weed out the bad actors – the really bad cops. And that’s certainly important. But as Samuel Walker has told me more than once, training and analysis may do far more than punishment to improve use of force.

So going forward, I’m very interested in whether the attitudes of offices and those who review them can be channeled to do the most good. I know many of you here have worked on that front, and if you have insights I’ll give you my email address when I’m finished, which I promise will be in just a minute.

Lastly, I think back to Loretta Luke, the woman who called the newspaper in 2003. And I think of the officer who shot her son. I sat down with him in his lawyer’s office for more than an hour after he was fired. He was not a rogue cop. In his file was a commendation for NOT firing his gun in an earlier incident. A review board concluded he just made an error in judgment. The shell casings on the ground showed he was too far from Stanley Bates, who never made it off the front step. But the officer maintained the crime scene unit was just wrong about the shell casings. And the officer standing next to him apparently would have testified he only held his fire for fear of hitting civilians. But the second officer dropped dead in a basketball game, and the first officer negotiated a deal to turn his firing into a resignation.

I don’t know what happened to him. He didn’t show up in court this year to contest a lawsuit filed by Loretta Luke. She was awarded a large judgment – not that she ever expects to collect a penny.

It seems to me that if these tragedies are to have meaning, it will come from thorough review by journalists and civilians and experts like many of the people in this room.

I look forward to your questions.

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