Since the 9/11 terror attacks and the ensuing wars, there has been a nationwide trend towards militarization of American police forces. In cities around the nation, officers appear to be operating under rules of engagement that might be better suited to a patrol in occupied Baghdad.
Police officers are faced with dangerous situations on a daily basis, and the majority of cases are peacefully resolved. Officers are often placed in the position of balancing their own safety against the safety of those they seek to detain. As can be found within any profession, mistakes are made. Organizations, being comprised of people, are imperfect by nature and we should expect accidents, mistakes and even outright misconduct.
The Wichita Police Department should not be judged by the mistakes, accidents or instances of misconduct that do occur. Rather, the department should be judged by how it responds to such incidents. The department should be judged by the measures taken to prevent further tragedies from taking place as well as by its willingness, or lack thereof, to act with transparency and accountability.
Having acknowledged that the Wichita Police Department is an imperfect organization comprised of imperfect officers, we must also acknowledge that the department operates within a much larger and equally imperfect system that rewards secrecy over whistle blowing. The specter of negative publicity coupled with legal liability has created a culture of silence, not just within government, but within the private sector as well.
Because information is not made available to the public, the media, or even the families of people who are fatally shot by Wichita Police officers, the community is left with nothing but unanswered questions. In seeking answers, families of the victims of police shootings and activists have been met with indifference, and in some cases, outright disrespect.
Nationwide, officer-involved shootings are on the rise, as they are in Wichita. What makes Wichita unique is the veil of secrecy surrounding the shootings. In other communities around the country, grand jury investigations into police shootings are routine, if not mandatory. Yet in Wichita, investigations are conducted under a veil of secrecy.
The department does have a listing of its standard operating procedures and policies, which is available online. Unfortunately, the section found under the heading Internal Investigations, labeled Officer-Related Incidents, is not available to the public. At the very least, are we not entitled to know the rules that dictate how such cases are handled?
Our officers are armed with increasingly higher tech weaponry and seem to be receiving training similar to that of our soldiers who patrol streets in war zones. Local combat veteran and anti-war activist Ethan McCord describes the training he received very clearly: “We trained daily in the Army to instinctively fire our weapons. They called this muscle memory.”
McCord is well-known for having spoken out against excessive use of force by the military, within his own former unit. The problems were not only found within the misconduct of individual soldiers, but also within the training our soldiers have received. I wonder how many of our Wichita Police officers have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, where soldiers are taught to shoot first and ask questions later, as a survival method. Could any of our officers be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Could this have been in a factor in any of the recent shootings?
When a Wichita Police officer fires his or her weapon in the line of duty, the citizens of Wichita have a right to know the exact circumstances surrounding the situation. The families of such victims have a right to be treated like the families of any other victims. Just imagine if it were your son, your grandmother, your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, your aunt, your daughter, your cousin. You would want the truth, and you would expect to be treated with the utmost respect at all times.
Due to the lack of transparency surrounding officer-involved shootings in Wichita, we are left to speculate over the facts of these cases. When the department refuses to address blatant contradictions in their accounting of events, the situation is compounded by a growing mistrust of the police in general, which endangers the lives of our officers and makes their jobs exponentially more difficult.
When a life is lost, we need the highest level of transparency, but we are receiving the lowest. The department does not reveal the names of the officers involved in police shootings but they do state that an officer who shoots a citizen does not return to active patrol until the investigation is concluded. We would ask you to consider requiring a grand jury trial for these shootings.
Mike Shatz is an activist in Wichita, Kansas. We have been investigating a series of police shootings at the request of the families of the victims. This article is adapted from a speech was read last week on 9/11 to the Wichita city council.