Yet another fatal police shooting caught on camera. A month later, where's the video?
Another fatal police engagement is making headlines. This time, it happened in Northern Virginia, the community where I chose to raise my kids because it’s supposed to be safe.
On Feb. 22, two Fairfax County police officers responded to a shoplifting report at Tysons Corner mall. They chased the suspect, Timothy McCree Johnson, into a wooded area where police fired shots. Johnson, 37, was taken to a hospital but did not survive.
Nearly a month after the incident, that is essentially all we know.
Protesters are demanding more information – and they should be. As a leader who has worked in both crisis communications and criminal justice, my advice to police leadership in these situations is to communicate quickly, transparently and accurately to avoid deteriorating police-community relations.
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Trust between law enforcement and communities is critical to public safety. Reforms centered on equipment or surveillance tactics will only increase trust if there are clear communications and disclosure practices. A body camera does nothing for accountability if its footage never enters the public record.
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Polling shows how trust eroded following the tragic murder of George Floyd, along with other fatal police encounters. While good communication alone will not be enough to rebuild faith in our justice system, poor communication from law enforcement sows distrust, which harms public safety.
Law enforcement needs to prioritize transparency, quickly assessing what is known and proactively communicating those facts to the media and community. Public officials must default to dissemination, only withholding information if it is vital to conducting an investigation or making an arrest.
Expedient, accurate and open communication should be the standard for institutions that require trust from the communities they serve. In the Johnson case, Fairfax County police have been slow and fragmented in their release of information.
During a briefing following the incident, Police Chief Kevin Davis said body camera footage would be released to the community within 30 days, per the department's policy. Policies that set arbitrary deadlines like this are flawed. Unless explicitly requested by the district attorney, there is no reason police departments should hold body camera footage to match a predetermined timeline. If the footage can be released immediately, it should be.
Davis also did not disclose what prompted officers to open fire, or even whether the suspect was armed.
At the time, the incident was still under investigation, and police were actively searching the area for evidence. But Wednesday will mark a month since the shooting occurred. The body camera footage still has not been released to the public, nor have the police released details about the incident, aside from sharing that no weapon was found at the scene.
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Davis did, however, make it a point to discuss Johnson during that first briefing, noting that "his encounters with local law enforcement in the national capital region span many years, and it’s a violent criminal history.”
No further details on that history – or its impact on the incident at hand – were reported.
Police killings are judged in the court of public opinion
I don't have enough information to pass judgment on what occurred. What I do know is that incidents like the Fairfax County police shooting are being judged in the court of public opinion almost as soon as they happen. Releasing piecemeal information on a man killed by officers, without the full facts of the case, can backfire by creating an image that police have something to hide, or are preemptively trying to influence public opinion before all the details emerge.
Police have a responsibility to expediently release all the facts so that members of the public can come to their own conclusions. But when doing so, departments must ensure that they are providing information that is accurate and complete. Otherwise, a quick response will backfire.
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Take the aftermath of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, in May. Public safety leaders moved quickly to share information with the public about the incident and response, spinning a narrative of police heroism in the process.
We now know that much of that information was false – from details on the gunman, who killed 19 students and two teachers, to the catastrophic delays in response from law enforcement.
The mistakes in Uvalde have no doubt done tremendous damage to the reputation of law enforcement, sowing distrust nationally.
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Contrast the actions by police in Uvalde and Fairfax County to those of Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis after officers fatally beat Tyre Nichols in January. Davis did at least one thing right: She kept the public informed, she did it quickly, and she provided a sense that justice would be served.
The officers were fired and charged, and the police chief condemned their actions. She called the incident “heinous, reckless and inhumane” – no hesitation, no red herring condemnation of the victim. At least some of the bodycam footage of Nichols’ beating was released just a couple of days after Davis’ statement.
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Nichols' death was a blow to police-community relations. A Washington Post-ABC poll shows that trust in police dropped across lines of race, party and age. But Davis' transparency is an example of what can be done to limit distrust of law enforcement leaders and quell anger, and it has likely played a role in the peaceful protests that followed.
It's crucial that police leadership be given the proper crisis communications training to handle these situations transparently. I encourage departments across the country to rethink their policies in this space and work with their legal teams to ensure that fast, accurate information becomes the rule – not the exception.
Violent crime has risen in many cities over the course of the pandemic, and positive police-community relations are one of the most critical tools we have for preventing and solving crime.
We simply cannot afford trust in our police to continue to plummet – not in the community where I’m raising my children, or in any others.
James Davis is the founder and president of the communications firm Touchdown Strategies. Follow him on Twitter: @imjamesdavis
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Police kill yet another unarmed Black man. Where's the body cam video?