Dozens of police chiefs meeting in Chicago this week said a notorious fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri in August had been a defining moment for law enforcement and pledged greater transparency over such incidents.
Speaking to Reuters in a group interview, the heads of police of Dallas, Chicago, Austin, Houston, Elk Grove, California, Boston, and Toronto, Canada said that every police shooting since Ferguson has been followed by protests.
They said they had agreed to quickly release details of such shootings, including names of officers involved, in jurisdictions where it is legal to do so.
The Chicago gathering was the first since Ferguson of the Police Executive Research Forum, a policing issues think tank that brings police chiefs together to discuss best practices.
“Information is moving so quickly that the void will be filled in with rumor if you are not willing or able to put out as much fact as you know about the incident,” said Dallas Police Chief David Brown.
On Aug. 9, white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed African American. The shooting led to a federal civil rights probe and shone an international spotlight on race relations in America.
Protests over the Ferguson shooting were fed by anger that the police withheld information about the officer involved and details of the incident.
The chiefs said that they had to lead a cultural shift in policing – emphasizing the importance of de-escalating potentially violent situations – that is often resisted by the rank and file who fear appearing soft on crime.
The forum that organized the Chicago meeting does not produce binding policy, but police departments have adopted its recommendations on the use of Tasers and body cameras.
There are risks in giving out information quickly, the chiefs said, such as tainting a grand jury, and police must be careful to note they are offering preliminary findings that may change as new details emerge.
The chiefs said that even though a police shooting might be ruled justifiable under law, they had to hold officers to higher moral and ethical standards to satisfy the community.
“All it takes is one that doesn’t do the right thing, and we need to step up and separate that officer from employment and pursue criminal charges. We had a frank discussion about the leadership it takes to do that,” said Brown.
(Reporting by Fiona Ortiz. Editing by Eric Walsh)