The value of greater police transparency

The value of greater police transparency

The video showed police repeatedly begging an emotionally troubled man holding an knife to drop his weapon. And then firing when he pointed what turned out to be a toy gun at them.

A short time later the man would die.

The video was not produced by onlookers amid a controversy — as we have all grown accustomed to — but the NYPD, which began equipping officers with body cameras in April in an effort at greater openness.

“Transparency is one of the many ways this department can continue to keep and build on the trust each of you has worked so hard to earn from members all across our city,” Police Commissioner James O’Neill  said. “In the vast majority of these cases we believe that body-worn video will confirm the tremendous restraint exhibited by our officers.”

We strongly applaud the NYPD for its extraordinary openness in releasing the video. It offers a model for transparency that should be adopted by police departments across the country including Nassau County’s.

Perhaps even more important is O’Neill’s explanation for the release of the tape — a commitment to build on the trust the department has worked to develop with members of New York City’s diverse community.

This can be seen New York’s commitment to being a “sanctuary city” for immigrants — a controversial tactic in which city police limit aid to federal agents tracking down undocumented immigrants so they do not discourage undocumented immigrants from cooperating with police during criminal investigations.

The issue of “sanctuary cities” has already become a heated one in the race for county executive between former state Sen. Jack Martins, a Republican, and Nassau County Legislator Laura Curran, a Democrat.

Martins has said Nassau County would not be a “sanctuary county” if he is elected and has gone so far as to demand that Curran repudiate the endorsements of organizations that have supported a sanctuary county approach and called for greater outreach to immigrants youths.

This is an issue that should receive a full hearing from Martins and Curran during the campaign.

With 2017 expected to be the safest in New York City history, O’Neill’s words certainly offer Curran a strong argument.

But O’Neill’s decision to release the tape of the NYPD’s interaction with Miguel Richards in the Bronx on Sept. 6 was not without its critics.

Patrick Lynch, the head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, slammed the release of the footage, saying it set a “dangerous precedent,” according to the Daily News.

“The district attorney’s investigation into the case is still ongoing,” the News quoted Lynch as saying. “It should be allowed to proceed free of pressure and interference, looking at all of the relevant facts alongside the video footage.”

Others criticized the failure of the NYPD to call the city’s Emergency Service Unit, which is specially trained to handle situations with people who appear to have mental health issues, and a shortage of officers trained in dealing with people with mental health issues.

But we think this is the value of O’Neill’s decision to release the tape when he did.

The video, while not a perfect depiction of everything involved in the incident, quickly gave the public a strong sense of the difficult choices facing officers in a dangerous situation and, in this instance, the great lengths they went to avoid bloodshed. In a country rocked by police shootings of blacks and other minorities for what has sometimes appeared to be for little or no reason this is no small thing.

With the release of the video, facts replaced public speculation, easing concerns that the police had acted without sufficient reason.

We believe the video of police confrontations will in the large majority of instances — at least in New York City and Nassau — show police acting with professionalism and concern. And discourage police who might otherwise not follow protocol.

In some cases, the video may also show the police acting improperly. It is to the benefit of the vast majority of police who do things right that those bad apples are exposed and removed from the force.

The question of whether an emergency unit should have been called in to assist in handling the Bronx man or if the NYPD — or Nassau County police — need more training in coping with mental health issues are also fair ones.

We believe the type of transparency shown by the NYPD in this case will make law enforcement officials and the public more likely to find answers to these questions and others.

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