On Your Side Investigations: Lack of transparency surrounding officer-involved shootings

Updated: May. 25, 2021 at 1:27 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - In May, WBRC marked the anniversary of George Floyd’s death by evaluating Alabama law enforcement agencies’ use-of-force policies. Floyd’s death prompted a national campaign, calling for sweeping changes to policing. This On Your Side investigative series revealed the amount of force local officers can use with combative subjects, why officers accused of misconduct aren’t being tracked and the lack of transparency in lethal force investigations.

Officers in Alabama can use lethal force when lives are in jeopardy.

It’s a split-second decision that’s usually reported by police, but there’s little information that follows. At least ten officer-involved shootings have been reported in our region this year. In some instances, we never learn whether the shooting was justified.

Ted Sexton, WBRC’s use-of-force expert, says departments are often prohibited by state and federal laws from sharing that information.

“What the public knows is coming largely from media reports, unfortunately I think you’re starting to see the transparency is lacking,” Sexton said. “The laws were written several years ago for the protection of the integrity of the investigation. Today the accountability, trust issues, and public perception have changed drastically. So, in order for these policies or laws to change, in many instances, we’ll deal with the city council or we’ll deal with state legislators.”

WBRC filed a public records request with the State Bureau of Investigations to obtain a list of officer-involved shootings reported across the state. The SBI generally investigates all use-of-force cases in Alabama as a neutral third party. ALEA’s general counsel responded, stating it could not meet the request.

“Because local agencies initiate such investigations by phone, ALEA is unable to produce any such records,” the response noted.

WBRC followed up to determine whether ALEA globally tracks the use-of-force cases it investigates. Our question was not answered.

The lack of data doesn’t stop there. We found that only five of 461 law enforcement agencies in Alabama provide use-of-force data to the FBI’s National Use-of-Force Data Collection. While it lists the agencies that contribute, citizens don’t have access to the nature of those investigations and whether the force was justified.

“You have a lot of smaller agencies in Alabama and it is difficult and extremely expensive and time consuming,” Sexton said of the use-of-force data collection.

The latest bill signed by Governor Kay Ivey tasks the Alabama Standards and Training Commission, or APOSTC, to track officers who are reprimanded, disciplined or terminated for use-of-force incidents. While many believe it’s a step in the right direction, the public won’t have access to that information either.

“I believe that you will see additional legislation that the state legislature [will introduce] that will require that information to be shared,” Sexton added.

In February, the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF, issued a study highlighting the growing need for agencies to compile use of force instances, noting law enforcement cannot manage what they do not measure.

“We have found too much valuable use-of-force data are captured only in narratives, paper records or inaccessible electronic systems,” the study noted. “It is critical to systematically collect this information, which many agencies are already compiling informally, in a digital format.”

PERF’s study suggested officers’ gender or race did not influence the chance of force. Rather, other factors like higher education levels, experience and age often decrease the likelihood of using force. Males who resist arrest and have a gun are often met with force. Chances of force increase, according to the study, if an officer is working in a disadvantaged area with high crime or a vehicle or foot pursuit ensues.

“Remember that each situation has the opportunity to be significantly changed within seconds, it’s a fast-evolving situation that drives many of these incidents and stories that you’re reporting,” he explained. “[The force used] is dictated in responding to the actions of the individual that you’re dealing with.”

Many departments promote new internal initiatives and programs that reframe their policing standards to match the will and desire of the communities they serve. Sexton says there are deliverable items that will show an agency is working to change its culture.

“I think immediately we’ll see it in the hiring standards,” he explained. “For example, right now in Alabama all you need is a high school degree or GED. When we see those educational standards rise to possibly an associate degree or baccalaureate degree, that that will help the profession. Better-educated officers whose writing and communication skills and understanding will be at an entry level higher than what they are now, then that will be a good indication that we’re starting to see changes.”

Sexton also notes departments who add mental health professionals as first responders and work with the community on a regular basis are strong indicators of moving toward a new policing model.

“It’s all about the will to develop the public trust and the will to communicate. There’s too many wounds and scabs that need to heal on both sides. We’re still seeing officers shot almost on a daily basis it seems somewhere in the country. And then the concern is also that we’re seeing suspects shot somewhere in the country, almost on a daily basis.”

As for accountability, only two officers in Alabama have been convicted for unjustified lethal force. Cody Smith, a former Montgomery Police Officer is sentenced to fourteen years in prison for manslaughter. Huntsville Police Officer William Darby was convicted of murder in April, he’s currently awaiting sentencing.

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