State should leave officer ID decisions to locals
When a police officer kills a citizen should his identity be kept secret? Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba thinks not. A special task force appointed by the mayor on the issues agrees. But the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which investigates fatal police shootings, has refused to assist Jackson with fatal shooting investigations because of the disclosure of officers’ names. Now the state legislature is joining the debate. The Mississippi House of Representatives passed HB 1289 80-31, which makes such identification a misdemeanor offense prior to 180 days.
A recent Washington Post investigation revealed that throughout the nation police departments identified the shooting officer in 80 percent of the fatal incidents. In 990 fatal incidents in 2015 there were only 14 times when an officer’s name was withheld for fear of the officer’s safety. Of the 210 times the name was withheld, the breakdown of other reasons was: do not release names unless charges filed, 17; department policy, 22; pending investigations, 60; other reasons, 32; and no response from the police department, 65.
This is a complex issue and there are pros and cons on each side. There is no greater display of government force than the fatal shooting of a citizen by an armed law enforcement officer. If there is any doubt, we should err on the side of transparency, unless there is clear evidence that a disclosure could bring immediate harm to the officer involved. The fear and control of unchecked government power is perhaps the most fundamental concept embedded in our nation’s Constitution. It should not be dismissed lightly.
But there is another issue here: Who should be making this decision, the local or state officials? The mayor and the city council are elected by the people in that jurisdiction. The mayor chooses the police chief, who then sets such policies. These local officials are accountable to their constituents. They are the best officials to decide the appropriate policy. State officials should not be overruling them, especially when Mayor Lumumba’s policies are by far more mainstream based on what most police departments are doing throughout the nation.
The state senate should table House Bill 1289 and resist the temptation to usurp local democratic decision making. The governor should order the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations to cease punishing Jackson for its correct policy and resume assisting Jackson in their police shooting investigations.
Wyatt Emmerich is a columnist, writer and publisher in Jackson. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.