Transparency that matters: Releasing the right information at the right time following an OIS
Understanding the concerns of both community advocates and officers is key to working through many issues in policing
By Chief Gordon Ramsay
Throughout my tenure as chief of police in Duluth, as well as Wichita, I’ve taken pride in my strong belief and commitment to working together with the community. In order for our relationship to be and remain effective, it is essential that we work closely together and that we do so on the basis of trust, respect, transparency and a shared commitment to safety.
This is a challenging time for policing – many of my colleagues around the country are facing dire challenges in recruiting officers, as well as retaining officers within their departments.
A 2017 national survey report by the Pew Research Center found that 8 out of 10 Americans (83%) say they understand the risks and challenges of police work. However, the report found that 86% of officers say that the public does not fully comprehend the challenges that officers face. The report noted that police officers are three times as likely as other workers to say they nearly always or often have serious concerns about their physical safety while on the job, compared to other employed Americans who are four times as likely as officers to say that they hardly ever or never seriously worry about their physical well-being at work.
The current narrative about police officers is overly negative and does not accurately reflect the good work the majority do every minute of every day. If we want to have the best and brightest enter police work, and then stay in the profession, we must recognize the incredible scrutiny police are currently under.
I believe most police officers are special people because of the work they do, but in reality, they are ordinary people doing extraordinary work that often requires split-second decisions in harrowing situations. We require officers to run to dangerous and tense situations and expect absolute perfection in their duties. When an officer does use force today it is highly scrutinized. Controversial use of force by an officer can cause significant issues for their safety, as well as their families. There are cases throughout the country where officers and their families have faced retaliation and harassment.
ensuring community, police concerns are heard
Understanding the concerns of both community advocates and police officers is key to working through many issues in policing. My job as the chief executive is to stand in the gap between these views and to bring them together.
In Wichita, we recently worked with our Citizen Review Board and the police union to improve our transparency following officer-involved shootings (OIS). The public surely has a right to information after an OIS. We discussed the practice of releasing an officer’s name who has been involved in an OIS and identified other important information, including:
- If the officer(s) involved are highly experienced or relatively new on the job;
- If they have been involved in prior shooting incidents, received discipline previously or complaints over the last several years;
- Demographic details about the officer(s) (just as the public has a right to know similar details about the subject involved, when/if criminally charged).
These details can help the community as it processes what occurred and can help to challenge some understandable judgments or concerns that may reach our minds.
Ensuring officer safety
At the same time as I am committed to protecting and serving the community, I am also responsible for ensuring the safety of those who put their lives on the line every day and their families that they leave behind every night, evening, weekend and day that they go to work. For this reason, I encouraged our citizen review board to not require that the name of the officer involved be released, even while acknowledging that some of my colleagues around the country do release the names of officers, names of subjects and other details promptly following a shooting incident.
Different from meaningful and substantive information, the name of an involved officer – who may have acted completely within policy and the law to take the action – tells us nothing and answers nothing about the incident itself. Instead, the release of an officer’s name has almost become a litmus test for transparency that in my view falls short of true transparency. However, should the officer be found to have violated the law, an entirely different set of considerations comes into play that would cause us to reconsider the information that we release. I am grateful our civilian review board took this consideration seriously and made the decision they made to not require the release of names.
My reasoning for taking this position was informed by the challenges described above, but also in light of the very real safety concerns that officers face today, as anyone’s family and personal information can be accessed online with ease by just about anyone. In the hands of someone who may not react rationally to such an incident or their beliefs about it, this can be a perilous position for officers and their families, including extended families.
I don’t say this without thought and consideration. Retaliation for the actions officers take regardless of the justification under the law has been called for in some cases and some officers have found their personal information intentionally exposed and misused to further retaliation. Examples include an NYPD officer whose professional and personal information was exposed, including his addresses, the names of his relatives and phone numbers. A Georgia Chief Deputy was shot and killed at his home by the subject of an investigation after the deputy’s address was identified by the subject. A Florida Sheriffs’ Deputy was “doxed” in order to plan her murder to prevent her from testifying in an upcoming trial. In this case, the Deputy’s address, the car she drove, and her schedule was discovered online.
Closer to home, we have found ourselves taking additional security precautions to protect officers and their families following a critical incident. This is not to suggest that releasing an officer’s name will always result in threats, doxing or retaliatory actions, but the risk is real and I do not believe it’s an entirely worthy one when considering the value of the name compared to other information that we will release. OIS incidents are much more volatile today than when I first became a chief almost 13 years ago.
Like many of my colleagues around the country, I am committed to being transparent in these situations, regardless of whether the information reflects positively or less so on us. I recognize that many of my colleagues have and will continue to release the names of officers in every OIS incident and I respect their decisions. I am committed to the safety of my community, being an accountable leader and reducing the risks to those who put their lives on the line for all of us every day. While there may be situations that require the release of officer names, doing so prematurely creates added and unnecessary risk in my view and falls short of providing our community with the answers and accountability they deserve.
About the author
Chief Gordon Ramsay was appointed as the Wichita Police Chief in January 2016. Prior to coming to Wichita, he worked his way up the ranks at Duluth Minnesota Police Department. In Duluth, he was appointed as chief in 2006 at the age of 34, and was the youngest chief in the city’s history. Chief Ramsay began his career at the age of 20 and has been committed to the community policing philosophy since the beginning. As Wichita Police Department Chief he has focused on pushing officers closer to the communities they serve, building relationships, increasing the use of technology, and reducing crime.
Chief Ramsay has a bachelor’s degree in criminology and sociology and a master’s degree in management and is a past president of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association. He currently is active with the Major City Chiefs Association and serves on the Technology Committee.