Ferguson Reminder of Need for Protocol Investigation Reform

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Kristopher Anderson is a first year graduate public affairs student.

On a Saturday morning last January, two police officers responded to a call from home in a quiet Lodi neighborhood for a report of a disturbance between a 43-year-old Gulf War veteran suffering from schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder and his family.

After arriving, officers soon spotted the man at a nearby park and attempted to make contact, but he continued walking while ignoring orders to stop and talk. As the officers trailed on foot, the man pulled a folding knife from his pocket, police said. Officers drew their handguns and ordered him to drop his weapon. Instead, as both officers would later tell investigators, he charged in their direction.

fergThe officers fired a total of 14 shots, striking Parminder Singh Shergill in the abdomen, chest, arm, legs, jaw and back, killing him on the spot. At the time, I was a police reporter working for the Lodi News-Sentinel. In the days that followed, I was tasked with canvassing the neighborhood, searching for anyone who witnessed the incident. And, much like Ferguson, Mo., the scene of several days of violent protests after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old black man, I found several people who told a much different story than the Lodi Police Department.

Incidents in Ferguson and Lodi are just the latest officer-involved shootings in which police argue that lethal force was justified while eyewitness accounts lead one to believe excessive force was used. This shooting also comes at a time when officers are involved in at least 400 killings each year, according to USA Today.

What is even more troubling is time after time officers are exonerated, crucial evidence appears ignored, and, worst of all, families are only left with unanswered questions. (this would be a good place to add a quote, or a statistic of how many are exonerated, etc.)

Since 2005, just three officers in California have been prosecuted in a fatal or near-fatal shooting, according to Californiawatch.org. A statistic such as this calls into question procedures law enforcement use to investigate these shootings.

While covering the Lodi killing, I learned that the California Department of Justice, the Lodi Police Department, and the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office, which would rule whether lethal force was justified, would conduct the investigation.

Yes, a police department would attempt to impartially investigate its own officers. The district attorney’s office would also use current and retired officers to investigate the shooting.

Throughout much of the United States, this is not the exception, but rather the norm.

It is a glaring conflict of interest. The statistics reflect that, and it is partly because of these potentially biased investigations that some officers seemingly shoot first and ask questions later.

Thankfully for the citizens of Ferguson, and frankly, for every future victim of an officer with a heavy trigger finger, the FBI and the Office of the Attorney General are assisting to ensure a fair and transparent investigation, authorities say.

But every year, hundreds of officer-involved shooting investigations do not receive cries for justice heard from coast-to-coast.

In the absence of neutrality, the only recourse for a victim’s family is a civil lawsuit, and many of those are settled before a verdict is issued and police have to admit any wrongdoing.

Like everyone, I hope for an open and honest investigation in Ferguson. I hope the family of Michael Brown gets answers and is not left with more questions. And I hope police departments throughout the country are watching Ferguson, and realize what can happen when law enforcement stands against, rather than beside, its citizens.

A badge is not a crown. It should not preclude officers from persecution. Let us all hope this is forever a turning point in finding justice when officers shoot someone they are sworn to protect. 

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