Soon you will see newspaper and television stories about officer-involved shootings in Kansas City. They likely will feature emotional statements from loved ones saying they wish the shootings never had to happen. Those of us in law enforcement wish the same thing. The very last thing any officer wants to do is take the life of another person. Everyone misses a loved one when they are gone. Because of this, I understand that the family and friends of those left behind are grieving and questioning the necessity of it all.
But when a life-threatening situation presents itself, officers cannot act on what they would like to happen. They don’t have that luxury. They must act on the facts as they know them at the time and take what actions are necessary and legal to protect themselves and others. And unlike the extensive analysis of the incident that so-called “experts” on 24-hour news stations can conduct in the aftermath, officers usually do not have the luxury of time as an incident unfolds. They have fractions of a second to determine whether someone is presenting a threat to their life or the life of another.
We have seen what irresponsible reporting by the media can do. While protests over the death of a man in police custody raged in Baltimore in May, a national news network reported that Baltimore police had shot and killed a protester, nearly inciting another riot. That was not at all true. Police instead arrested a man with a gun. The network retracted the report. But not before it already increased unrest and police distrust in the city. Once the relationship between the community and police is damaged, it may take years to repair it.
Most news organizations – local or national – are not so reckless as to report complete falsehoods. But presenting emotion-heavy stories, out-of-context videos and putting “experts” on television or in print who don’t know all of the facts of an incident is a disservice to everyone. Police investigations of officer-involved shootings are based on facts. Trained detectives with years of experience in criminal investigations determine the facts of the case. Those facts and findings are then presented to a prosecutor for a determination of whether police acted within the law. Emotions cannot be a factor in conducting a fair and unbiased investigation, and the public should expect no less. And as the Department does with any other criminal investigation, once an officer-involved shooting investigation is closed, the case file is made public, in accordance with the Missouri Sunshine Law.
Fostering distrust between police and the community is a reckless thing to do. Everyone’s safety is put at risk when communities lack the trust to work together to fight violence. We have seen violence spike in recent years in communities where residents don’t have a good relationship with law enforcement. I blogged about that earlier this year. I have worked my entire career here at KCPD to build trust between the department and residents, and it has been one of my top priorities as Chief of Police. And from the feedback I’ve gotten, we’re making real strides.
I’m not saying that we are perfect. If one of the 2,000 members of this department violates policy or the law, we want to know about it, and we will work to correct it as quickly as possible. We have proved as much by taking such allegations seriously. For example, the Office of Community Complaints – an independent civilian oversight organization – was one of the first civilian oversight offices for law enforcement to be established in this country. When a KCPD member has violated the law or department policy, he or she will be held accountable.
But we invest heavily in training to avoid such violations of the law or department policy in the first place. From one call to the next, our officers must be social workers, paramedics or conflict mediators, and we try to prepare them for every situation they may face. Our officers are well-versed in everything from responding to an active shooter to city ordinances.
A city where law enforcement and other community members work together and trust each other is a safer community. It’s a place where people feel free to come to police with their fears or to provide information to capture someone who has committed violence in their neighborhood. Propagating stories to get ratings or readers that rely solely on emotion, or out-of-context snippets undermines that relationship, and ultimately undermines the safety of the city.