The police-related events that riveted Chicago last week hold strong lessons for Kansas City and elsewhere.
Anger built, justifiably, when the long-delayed release of a video showed Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shoot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. The teenager had been behaving erratically and was holding a small knife, but did not appear to be menacing police or civilians.
Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder hours before the video’s release. But black citizens and activists are enraged about the killing and the fact that officials held onto the video for more than a year before making it public.
On Friday, a more positive development took place. Chicago police and prosecutors announced they had charged a known gang member with the murder of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee, who was lured into an alley and shot, allegedly in retaliation for his father’s gang activities.
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Although police in Chicago, like officials in Kansas City, often bemoan a lack of cooperation, that wasn’t the case with this outrageous murder of an innocent child. Citizens’ tips helped them make the arrest, police said.
But the Chicago Police Department and the city administration still have a great deal of work ahead to regain public trust after recent events.
Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté addressed the issue of trust in a curiously framed blog post last week.
Forté reiterated that building good relations between police and the community was one of his top priorities. There’s little question the department has made progress under Forté’s leadership.
But the chief makes a point in his blog to warn news organizations not to second-guess police shootings.
“Police investigations of officer-involved shootings are based on facts,” he wrote, saying experienced detectives conduct the investigation and present the findings to a prosecutor, who decides if the officer acted within the law.
“Presenting emotion-heavy stories, out-of-context videos and putting ‘experts’ on television or in print who don’t know all of the facts of an incident is a disservice to everyone,” Forté wrote.
Certainly, accurate and responsible reporting is crucial. But entrusting the fact-finding on police shootings solely to any police department is no longer a realistic expectation.
Almost 900 civilians in the U.S. have been killed by police officers this year, according to a Washington Post data base. Most of them were armed and posing a threat to public safety.
But not all. At least 30 who were fatally shot were unarmed, and almost all were black. Historically in America, police departments, grand juries and prosecutors have been reluctant to bring charges against officers even in egregious circumstances.
Any suspicion of a cover-up does much more damage to community trust than aggressive or “emotion-heavy” news reporting. That’s why Kansas City and other police departments should equip officers with body cameras, something Forté has been slow to move on.
Kansas City has a well-trained police force, but a good relationship between police and a community requires constant vigilance. This is not the time to suggest the media back off.