Over the last few years, law enforcement agencies across the nation have faced intense scrutiny as they attempt to address concerns raised by several high-profile use of force incidents. To a large degree, social media has played a significant role in growing this scrutiny. Poor police tactics captured on video in one area of the country are broadcast instantaneously across the globe via YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets, which in turn drives questions and concerns about police practices in nearly all communities. Yet, just like in the past, progressive and professional law enforcement agencies rise to the challenge and take steps to ensure their policies and procedures are in line with emerging best practices. Then they work diligently to inform the local communities they serve of their ongoing efforts. Most recently, the Wisconsin Department of Justice (WDOJ) has taken some very noteworthy steps to formalize its guidelines for independently investigating police shootings, and the agency’s efforts are worth highlighting.
Acting Objectively and Fairly: Wisconsin’s New Guidebook
As Jason Stein recently reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, beginning in April of 2016 WDOJ investigators began reviewing the agency’s policies for investigating incidents involving police shootings. The review included looking at 60 investigations of police shootings the agency has conducted since 2014, as well as at best practices that have emerged across the nation. WDOJ’s review ultimately led to the creation of a new 20-page guidebook that will pilot future WDOJ investigations of police shooting incidents. Among others, one important update involves ensuring there are no disparities in the way suspects are subsequently interviewed compared to the law enforcement personnel involved. Such efforts can assist in implementing the concept of Procedural Justice as outlined in the final report of the recent Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing, in that agencies demonstrate their policing actions are grounded in treating all those with whom they interact objectively and fairly.
Reviewing Current Policies and Looking to the Future
WDOJ’s proactive efforts to review its policies and procedures is an indication the agency is taking the exact steps most members of any community would hope their law enforcement agencies would take to ensure its practices do reflect professionalism, as well as to reinforce the trust of the community itself. As many of us know, trust and support are vital for a law enforcement agency to succeed. That WDOJ’s efforts are successful can be seen in the support and acknowledgement it has received from numerous stakeholders across the political spectrum, including support from the state’s Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel, whose investigators led the effort to create the guidebook; Wisconsin’s Democratic State Senator Chris Taylor, who recently helped write the Wisconsin law requiring independent investigations of police shootings; as well as Jim Palmer, the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association. Indeed, gaining support from members of both major political parties as well as a union official is one tough thing for any law enforcement agency to do in today’s political environment.
Well done, Wisconsin!
As career-long experts dedicated to assisting local, state and federal law enforcement agencies assess their policies, procedures and practices so they comport with what most policing professionals recognize as best practices, our experience at Hillard Heintze working with dozens of police agencies has confirmed for us that taking actions such as those WDOJ took to update and professionalize its investigations of police shootings should be applauded.
Each and every effort a police agency can take to increase the level of transparency into its operations grows the level of community trust that is inarguably necessary for it to succeed in its mission. In turn, such trust increases vocal support for the admirable men and women in law enforcement who have dedicated themselves to provide for the safety of our communities, making WDOJ’s efforts a win-win situation for the police and their critics alike. Hence, we say, “Well done, Wisconsin!”