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Friday, September 2, 2016

Law Enforcement: a history of not sharing information

When the riots started in Ferguson, little information had been officially released from the police and the stories that were being told by different “witnesses” and speculators provided the only information for the media to release. By the time the facts did start to come out, buildings had been burned, reputations had been ruined, and people had been hurt. The ability to speak out, protest, and make your voice be heard is a guarantee form our first amendment under the bill of rights. But there is a line that was crossed when protests became riots, speaking out turned into burning other people’s businesses, and making a voice be heard turned into throwing rocks and bottles at the police. In the aftermath of the grand jury acquittal, the same violent riots were still taking place, and by that time, the stories that had been circulating had turned into “facts” and even though many of those “facts” were proven to be inaccurate, it was too late. The blame for this was placed on the media’s coverage of anyone who wished to speak out against what they called police the brutality they believed took place that night. There were things handled wrong in many areas and the media was not the only one to blame for the events that unfolded in the days and weeks after the shooting.

For the last 50 years, there has been a common response from law enforcement when dealing with high profile cases, and especially when the police are involved in an incident such as a shooting or some other type of use of force. We have all seen or heard this response before, and it reads something like this, “This case is under investigation and no information can be released at this time.” In most criminal cases, there is information that cannot be released. There are always certain facts that must go through a “prove or disprove” process, and key evidence must be preserved. If a witness claims they saw something, it is best to verify the statement before it is released to the public to become an un-official record and cause discredit to the actual facts. This is what has happened in many of the recent shooting incidents involving law enforcement, but what about the facts that we already know are accurate and will not be disproven? Body Camera footage, dash-cam footage, and names of those involved are some examples of evidence that is typically not disputed. Could there be facts on a video recording that need to remain confidential until certain people can be interviewed or located? That is very likely, but in most cases there is some type of information that can be released that would not jeopardize the case. When we conduct an investigation, we start by taking statements from anyone involved, and we must then verify those statements so that they may be proven or disproven. 

During this process, one of the most common discrepancies we find with witness statements is that they often see part of something and assume the rest. In a way, that is how the human mind works. Your brain “fills in the blanks” for you. Is it possible the same thing can be caused when the public sees that something has happened, but receives no information at all from law enforcement? I have always used the rule that people will have a story; it will be based off of the information you give them, or from the rumors of what people speculate happened. Either way there will be a story, so why not make sure it is based off the facts at hand? 

At the Vernon County Sheriff’s Office we will continue to release any information we can on cases as they unfold and use our partners in the local media to get the right information to the citizens that we serve. 

Courtesy of Vernon County Sheriff Jason Mosher

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