Too often, we Americans focus only on society’s problems and the shortcomings of our institutions. We forget to acknowledge when we discover solutions or make progress. One such area is police use of deadly force.
Have we solved the problem? Hardly. Are men and women working diligently in good faith on this issue and coming up with reforms? Absolutely.
Police departments throughout Hennepin County are at the forefront in changing how officers are trained to handle difficult confrontations.
I have high hopes for the latest innovation. The Police-Involved Deadly Force Encounters Working Group convened by Attorney General Keith Ellison and Commissioner of Public Safety John Harrington has held three hearings around the state, with at least one more scheduled before the 16 members begin working on recommendations to the legislature.
First, the working group has heard from the community. Despite a rocky first meeting, community input has been a focus of each hearing and is a critical part of the deliberations. Second, experts from Minnesota and around the nation have presented on innovations. The ultimate goal of everyone in the criminal justice system is to reduce use of deadly force to zero, while keeping our police officers and the community at large safe.
I have attended all three hearings and am impressed by the wide range of stakeholders on the commission. I have been impressed by those testifying, such as police chiefs who are serious about de-escalation training. They testified about their concern for the physical and mental health of their officers, including requiring a yearly session with a psychologist to make sure the stresses of the job are not adversely affecting the officer.
A police captain from Camden, N.J., described reforms to a department that lost its authority to exist and had to be rebuilt from the ground up. They rewrote use-of-force policies, which resulted in citizen complaints of excessive force dropping from double digits per year to just a single complaint.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi testified about his prosecutor’s tool kit, developed in conjunction with Valerie Castile. Among other things, it recommends an early assignment of an advocate to work with the families of the victim of a police use of deadly force. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension recently announced it is hiring a victim liaison.
My office has led the way in developing better ways of investigating and making decisions on cases. During the consideration of the Jamar Clark case, we listened to the community and I decided to no longer use a grand jury to decide whether the officers should be criminally charged.
In cases since then, when we found the shooting was objectively reasonable, we immediately posted on our website reports outlining the evidence and the law, showing our work to the public. We also posted all the evidence, including videos.
In the Justine Ruszczyk Damond case, when we brought murder charges, we immediately posted the criminal complaint and all the evidence came out in trial.
Our office also has developed a protocol for investigating and prosecuting fatal officer use of deadly force. The eight-page document sets forth our expectations for law enforcement agencies involved in the shootings and investigating them and is based on our years of experience handling these cases.
Yes, the protocol requires acquiring and preserving cellphone audio, video, text and other data made by civilians and police at the scene. None of those phones can be accessed without consent of the owner or a court-approved search warrant.
The idea behind this exhaustive protocol is that after a deadly force encounter, everyone will know what to do. It guarantees a thorough collection of all relevant evidence, which ultimately will be shared with the public.
Not surprisingly, some people already have begun digging in, trying to prevent change (“Hennepin, Ramsey attorneys have turned on cops,” Nov. 7). Some argue this is going too far while others are saying it won’t go far enough. But change is coming and it will help restore trust within all the communities of Minnesota and benefit the police officers sworn to protect us.
With people of goodwill on all sides, we can make it so.
Mike Freeman is the Hennepin County attorney.