This past weekend’s incidents in Altoona and Chippewa Falls took place at a sensitive time for law enforcement. With the entire field under a microscope, there will certainly be additional attention paid to both the fatal shooting by an officer in Chippewa Falls and just how a person wound up in intensive care after encountering an Altoona officer.
Details are sparse right now. For that reason we can’t really draw too many conclusions. We simply do not yet have enough information to draw from.
That said, the way the departments handle these situations has the potential to reverberate for a very long time. That means they must act in a way befitting the seriousness of the situations and, just as importantly, be seen to do so. Nothing will lend itself to people jumping to conclusions faster than if they are seen to be trying to dodge scrutiny or paper over events.
State investigators are involved in both cases. That’s entirely appropriate. It means the people drawing official conclusions won’t be the same ones who routinely work with the officers involved. That, in theory, means a more neutral examination of events. It also means there’s a limit to what the local departments can say. They’re under investigation, after all.
Because of that, the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation will also need to be thoroughly transparent. It’s not enough to just release the final conclusion of whether there was or was not conduct deserving of further legal action. The public will need a clear timeline and sequence of events, and a transparent explanation of how the conclusion is reached.
Why is this so critical? There are several reasons. The most important is that police and others in law enforcement do not act on the sole basis of their own authority. Theirs is derived from the public, and they act on behalf of the public.
Law enforcement is, we believe, an essential element of our society. There is a valid place for agencies authorized to use force to defend the public’s safety and wellbeing. That’s why blanket calls for defunding law enforcement do not receive our support.
That authority, though, comes with tremendous responsibility. If government wishes to claim — as most levels of American government do — a monopoly on the right to use force, they must also show good judgement in when and how they exercise that ability. They must also remain aware that public questions about their use of force are part and parcel of the fact they are paid public servants. It is disingenuous to claim the mantle of servanthood when negotiating contracts, only to insist on autonomy when questions are asked.
Departments seem to be increasingly cognizant of that fact. The swift and public embrace of a grant earlier this year that will provide body cameras for officers in Eau Claire as well as deputies and jail staff with the county sheriff’s department reflect that awareness.
It also reflects the simple fact that trust and credibility can be both built and broken. Acts that serve to ensure the public remains informed tend to build trust. Acts that conceal or are seen as self-serving tend to break it. There are times, such as with pending criminal cases, in which some information is reserved from public scrutiny by necessity, and most understand that need. But baseless claims of exemptions from observation can only erode the foundations upon which the power of law enforcement agencies is based.
We also cannot ignore the irreducible fact that lives are at stake. When a life is lost as a result of a public servant’s actions, there must be an accounting of why it happened. The same is true when someone is critically injured. Human life is simply too valuable to shrug off acts that endanger it.
None of this means, of course, that the officers involved did anything wrong. It is likewise too early to conclude their actions were blameless. We do not yet know, and will not until and unless proper investigations run their course.
The DCI’s investigations into this weekend’s events must be swift, thorough and credible. That’s the only just course of action for the public, for the officers involved, and for those injured.