How to hold officers accountable

Georgia police officers have shot and killed 184 people since 2010, an AJC/Channel 2 Action News investigation has determined. Almost half of the dead were either unarmed or were shot in the back, raising at least a question of whether those shootings were justified. In 11 cases, the dead suspect was both unarmed and shot in the back.

Now, those numbers tell us nothing about any individual case, just as the reality that most police shootings are probably justified tells us nothing about any individual case. Each case has to be judged on its specific facts and circumstances. The problem is, I’m not sure that’s happening. As the AJC investigation also documented, only one of the officers involved in those shootings was even indicted by a grand jury, and that indictment was reversed a day later at the request of the local district attorney.

One hundred and eighty four shootings over six years, and each and every one was judged necessary. According to the judicial system, Georgia police officers have been perfect in their use of deadly force.

That’s plausible, I suppose. But as law enforcement experts tell us, it is also unlikely.

Part of the problem is that until the AJC investigation, we just didn’t know. We had no idea how many people were dying in officer-involved shootings, nor how non-existent prosecution has been. Nobody counted because nobody cared. Frankly, until now we have operated under a blanket assumption that those killed by police officers probably deserved it, an assumption that has been deeply shaken by videotapes revealing questionable, even criminal behavior by police officers in cases that would have been swept under the rug without the video evidence.

In addition, Georgia is the only state in the country that allows a police officer to attend secret grand jury proceedings in cases where his or her behavior is under question. No other person has that right. Georgia law also gives the officer the right to testify before the grand jury and tell his side of the story, without cross examination. His or her version of the event cannot be questioned, and it’s time for the Legislature to correct that imbalance.

Look, this is a volatile debate, but we can at least start from common ground and common data. For example, it’s important to know that contrary to some claims, the number of officers killed in the line of duty has fallen by almost half in the last 25 years. While still dangerous, law enforcement is considerably safer than it used to be. It’s also important to acknowledge the fact that the data show a troubling racial discrepancy in the use of deadly force.

It’s also useful to know, based on the AJC data, that one in six people killed by Georgia police officers was unarmed. According to data compiled by The Washington Post, fewer than one in 10 killed nationwide by police was unarmed. Those numbers suggest that Georgia officers are more likely to kill unarmed suspects than their counterparts nationwide.

How can we fix that? Better training? Body cameras, to protect the reputation of the good officer as well as the safety of suspects? Tougher hiring standards, which means better pay? We won’t have the answers until we care enough to ask the questions.

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