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Opinion: Police transparency efforts will help both public, law enforcement officers

  

A hallmark of local government is its accessibility and accountability to the public. When Missourians want to know how their schools are performing, they look at average test scores or go to parent-teacher conferences and school board meetings. When Missourians want to know if the Department of Parks and Recreation is doing its job well, they can go check out their neighborhood parks. We all want to know what’s happening in our communities, and we should hold our government to high standards of transparency.

Rep. Bruce DeGroot

This simple principle gets more complicated when extended to police departments, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue it. Police officers encounter volatile and dangerous situations in their line of duty that our teachers and parks and recreation workers, quite frankly, do not. The sacrifices made by our neighbors in uniform each day make many of us hesitant to ask even more of our police departments. Requiring police departments to be more transparent can seem intrusive or suspicious to those of us who appreciate just how much officers do for our communities. 

But now more than ever, we need to realize that police department transparency will actually demonstrate the excellent job most police officers are doing. Transparency in police use-of-force will help restore the public’s trust in law enforcement. 

Missourians have seen too many periods of unrest due to public outrage over how a particular police officer used force. Across the country, scandals over police use-of-force have caused millions of Americans to question whether their local officers are upholding their oath to protect and serve. Given how little information is out there about how frequently police use force, Americans cannot be wholly faulted for painting law enforcement with such a broad brush.

Policymakers, however, cannot be let off the hook. It is our job to put systems in place that will start rebuilding trust in police among those who have lost it. One commonsense step is to make sure the public has access to data about how often and in what context police officers use force in their communities and across Missouri. Currently, only 17 out of 631 agencies in Missouri report use-of-force data.

Use-of-force transparency will inform Missourians about what’s really going on in their local departments. The next time someone sees a headline about police violence and asks themselves, “Is this happening in my community?” they should be able to look at a database that will give them an accurate answer — not just what the media tells them. 

In the majority of cases, citizens will see that their officers use very little force. In some cases, reporting use-of-force rates will highlight departments that need to improve. Most importantly, widespread transparency will help struggling departments learn from policies that are working better in neighboring departments. 

At its core, my police use-of-force transparency bill is about transparency in local government. Just as communities need data to make sure their schools are providing quality education, communities need data to make sure their police departments are ensuring the greatest public safety with the least force necessary. Most police departments already are, but policymakers should make it easier for the public to see that for themselves.