Guest Review: Protect the Badge and Protect the Truth | News, Sports, Jobs

Every day, police must focus on the routine but meaningful work that comes with the badge – interviewing victims, writing reports, directing traffic. But above every mundane moment hovers the ugly specter that everything could go wrong in the blink of an eye. And if so, the officer is forced to decide the moment that eye blinks whether to pull the trigger.

An entire career could be spent with care, diligence and honor, and everything could be called into question by a few seconds of decision making, whether the officer at that moment was tired, distracted, overworked or just 95% their best instead of 100%.

As journalists, we don’t claim to know what that kind of responsibility looks like. We don’t want to diminish it either. We understand the seriousness of this work and understand why it’s easy for officers to chafe at the scrutiny that comes with critical scrutiny of police shootings.

For journalists, however, the goal is always to understand the truth of a situation; we know the truth leads to better outcomes for everyone.

Right now, Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, is preparing legislation over the hill, with good intentions, which will unfortunately lead to bad results. The bill would amend the law to hide key documents about incidents of police use of force from the public.

Currently, there is a kind of document known as the “Garrity Declaration”. It refers to the United States Supreme Court case, Garrity v. New Jersey, which grants law enforcement officers under criminal investigation the same constitutional protections against self-incrimination as all Americans. It does something else, however. 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 criminal proceedings. These internal statements from Garrity help a department know whether the officer followed policy or deviated from it at the critical moment when 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’s statements, removing the public’s ability to hold departments accountable when officers break the rules.

Critics will say that if made public, these statements could harm the work of law enforcement.

As journalists, we couldn’t disagree more.

Keep in mind that the release of these records cannot be used against an agent in court.

A statement from Garrity might be embarrassing for an officer – but it wouldn’t put him behind bars for a bad mistake. At worst, it would highlight policies and procedures that need to be corrected in a department, and the publicity would hold departments accountable for correcting those errors. This is not a splashy story; it’s a question of responsibility that ensures the safety of the public and the police as well.

A statement from Garrity is also the ultimate proof of a well-run and well-trained service. It provides definitive proof of a policy followed and executed correctly. Hiding these records from the public will only sow more distrust in the community towards the police and deprive good police officers of the opportunity to be truly exonerated in the public eye. A Utah news outlet, for example, requested and received statements from Garrity from 29 different local police departments, ranging from Washington City to the Davis County Sheriff’s Office, with no problems. Nationwide, more than half of all states consider these records public records, including Florida, Arizona and Texas.

The police face a daunting and difficult job, perhaps more difficult than it has been for a generation. They need all the help they can get. With public records comes public awareness that can help departments modify, correct, and reorganize inadequate policies. With public awareness, good ministries and policies get their due credit.

Transparency and policing do not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, it’s the only meaningful way the police and the communities they serve can truly come together.

To share your support for keeping Garrity’s statements on public record, please visit le.utah.govclick on “My Legislators” and call or email your representatives to let them know that you support policing and transparency, and want them to vote against Representative Wilcox’s legislation.

Eric S. Peterson is Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Utah Headliners Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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