By Eric S. Peterson, board president of The Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists
Every day, police officers have to focus on the routine but meaningful work that comes with the badge — interviewing victims, writing reports, directing traffic. But hanging over every mundane moment is the dreadful specter that everything could go wrong in the blink of an eye. And if it does, the officer is forced to decide in the moment of that blinking eye if they should pull a trigger.
An entire career could be spent with care, diligence and honor, and it could all be called into question by a few seconds worth of decisionmaking, regardless of whether the officer in that moment was tired, distracted, overworked, or just at 95% their best instead of 100%.
As journalists we don’t pretend to know what that kind of responsibility is like. Nor do we ever mean to diminish it. We understand the gravity of that work and understand why it’s easy for officers to chafe at the scrutiny that comes with a critical examination of police shootings.
For journalists, however, the eye is always to understanding the truth of a situation; we know that the truth leads to better outcomes for everyone.
Right now Rep. Wilcox, R-Ogden, is readying legislation on the hill, with good intentions, that will lead to unfortunately bad results. The bill would change the law to hide from public view key documents about police use of force incidents.
Right now, there is a kind of document known as a “Garrity statement.” It refers to the U.S. Supreme Court case Garrity v. New Jersey that gives law enforcement officers under criminal investigation the same constitutional protections against self-incrimination as all Americans. It does something else, though. It also gives police departments the ability to legally compel their officers to make a statement and cooperate with internal investigations with the assurance that these internal statements cannot be used against them in a criminal proceeding. These internal Garrity statements help a department know if the officer followed policy or strayed from it at the critical moment that force is used.
These documents help departments strengthen their policies, improve training and keep their officers safe — and smart — on the job. But Rep. Wilcox wants to hide Garrity statements from view, removing the public’s ability to hold departments accountable for when officers aren’t going “by the book.”
Critics will argue that if made public these statements could harm the work of law enforcement.
As journalists, we couldn’t disagree more.
Keep in mind the release of these records can’t be used against an officer in court.
A Garrity statement could be embarrassing to an officer — but it would not put them behind bars for a bad mistake. At worst it would highlight policies and procedures that need to be fixed in a department, and the publicity would hold departments accountable to fixing those mistakes. It’s not about a splashy story, it’s about accountability that keeps the public safe, and the police safe as well.
A Garrity statement is also the ultimate proof of a department that is run right and trained well. It provides definitive evidence of a policy followed and executed properly. Hiding these records from the public will only sow more distrust in the community against police and will deny good police the opportunity to truly be exonerated in the public’s eye. A Utah news outlet, for example, requested and received Garrity statements from 29 different local police departments, stretching from Washington City to the Davis County Sheriff’s Office, without any trouble at all. Across the country more than half of all states consider these documents public records including Florida, Arizona and Texas.
Police face a daunting and difficult job, perhaps more challenging than it has been in a generation. They need all the help they can get. With public records comes the public awareness that can help departments tweak, fix and revamp inadequate policies. With public awareness, good departments and policies get the credit they are due.
Transparency and police work don’t have to be at odds with one another. In fact, it’s the only meaningful way police and the communities they serve can truly come together.
To share your support for keeping Garrity statements a matter of public record, please visit le.utah.gov, click on “My legislators,” and call or email your representatives to let them know that you support police and transparency, and you want them to vote against Rep. Wilcox’s legislation.