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House lawmakers seek to improve public opinion of law enforcement with transparency bills

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri lawmakers have made a point of standing behind the members of law enforcement, with the House recently passing several bills regarding police protection.

But the debate has also brought up concerns over the perceived lack of action by the General Assembly to address the issues highlighted by the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown and the following riots and protests in Ferguson, leading to a national debate on the issue of racially-biased policing.

“We’re known for Ferguson, and we still haven’t passed legislation like this almost three years later,” Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, said. “The last thing in the world that I want, that we all should want, is to see another situation where we have unrest because people didn’t trust the investigation that the police department did.”

At least three members of the House are seeking to improve the perception of law enforcement and the justice system with bills of their own while simultaneously addressing those concerns.

Rep. Gail McCann Beatty
House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty

House Minority Floor Leader Gail McCann Beatty has filed HB 41, which would require a special prosecutor to be appointed by a judge in the case of an officer-involved shooting.

“When a case involves a police officer, it creates an inherent conflict of interest for a local prosecutor who works closely with that officer’s department on a daily basis,” McCann Beatty said. “Requiring an outside prosecutor is a common-sense step to ensure the impartial pursuit of justice.”

Another bill, backed by Rep. Brandon Ellington, D-Kansas City, seeks to assign numbers to law enforcement personnel in order to track written complaints against the officers during their careers as they move to different agencies, providing a sort of watchdog service in order to maintain accountability.

Dogan has also filed a bill in the matter of officer-involved deaths, seeking to establish and implement a written policy on how to handle the matters.

Under this bill, an investigation into the death of a civilian at the hands of an officer would be required to be conducted by at least two investigators, neither of whom will be affiliated with the agency from which the case comes. It also requires the investigation to use a crash reconstruction team from another law enforcement agency and allows for an internal investigation into the officer-involved death if it does not interfere with the investigation required by this bill. Upon completion of the investigation, the agency will turn over the report to another county not involved in the case.

Rep. Shamed Dogan

“We’ve seen time and time again that when agencies investigate their own, there’s often a tendency to cover up,” Dogan said. “We saw that in South Carolina, where Officer Michael Slager shot Walter Scott while fleeing in the back. He wrote in his police report something completely different than what actually transpired. If there hadn’t been video from a random citizen, he probably would have gotten away with it. So, we just want to make sure that don’t have incidents where someone has been killed and justice isn’t done.”

Dogan believes both his bill and McCann Beatty’s take different approaches but would improve transparency and trust in the system.

“I think we need to go with one of the two concepts, or possibly even both,” he said. “It’s something important that our Legislature needs to consider. These are measures that both our state’s Ferguson Commission and the President’s Task Force on Policing have recommended.

“All that the people in our communities ask is that we have their backs, too,” Dogan finished.

All three bills by Ellington, McCann Beatty, and Dogan have been heard in committee, but are still waiting for any further action.