Although video of George Floyd’s fatal encounter with Minneapolis police officers shows otherwise, the police department intially told the public Floyd resisted arrest. And although video of Martin Gugino’s encounter with Buffalo law enforcement shows officers shoving him to the ground, police told us he tripped and fell.
It would be nice to say these are isolated incidents, but they’re not. Three days before Sandra Bland’s death by hanging on July 13, 2015, she was arrested by then trooper Brian Encinia during a traffic stop in which Encinia said his life was in danger.
“My safety was in jeopardy at more than one time,” Encinia told department interviewers.
Except that also wasn’t true, and once again, it was video footage that brought the truth to light — footage that Bland herself had captured on her cellphone. That video shows Encinia looking directly at the cellphone in Bland’s hand. As a result, Encinia was charged with perjury for making a false statement, and that charge was ultimately dropped in exchange for his promise to never again work in law enforcement.
The public was sold on the promise that police dash and body cameras would ensure accountability, but how can that be when in some states — Texas included — the public is at the mercy of the police department’s discretion to release the footage? One time is too many for the public to be told it has no right to view footage of incidents where police have taken a life, yet it’s happened here in Paris at least twice in the last two years. That’s not counting a March 2019 incident in which QuaDrea Quinton Dillard was fatally shot. The public was told two police officers were “fighting for control of the weapon” when Dillard fired it, fatally injuring himself.
Although the Texas Rangers have completed their investigation into all three incidents, nothing more has been said. Requests at the time for video footage of the officer-involved shooting death of Edward Zumski on Oct. 20, 2018, and of the officer-involved shooting of James Lewis Mathis III on Jan. 23, 2020, have been denied, as is allowed by the Texas Open Records Act.
When a request for that video footage is denied, the police department is doing nothing wrong. It is an exemption that has been allowed by our lawmakers while the public wasn’t paying attention. But much like the Covid-19 pandemic helped open the public’s eyes to just how little information the government must dole out to the public, the public is now waking up to just how little oversight of policing agencies there really is.
“Trust us” is an unacceptable stance to take for U.S. police departments when there is now, in a short period of time, multiple examples of departments making false statements that are only exposed when video of the incidents come to light.
There are now calls by Minneapolis city council members to dismantle the city’s police department and to replace it with a different public safety model. Councilman Steve Fletcher said incremental reforms to policing have not worked, and so it’s time “to disband our police department and start fresh with a community-oriented, non-violent public safety and outreach capacity.”
That’s an extreme approach given all that police departments do today, but one surefire way for police departments to regain the public’s trust is to increase transparency. More public oversight of the actions and decisions of those who enforce our laws could go a long way toward salvaging the profession.