AFTER 24-YEAR-OLD Albert Jermaine Payton was fatally shot outside his Southeast home by D.C. police officers, the department issued a terse news release. The man, according to the statement, had approached officers brandishing a knife and was shot when he did not comply with their order to drop the weapon.
That was more than two years ago. No other information — the number of shots fired, the type of knife, the race or backgrounds of those involved — has been forthcoming. Investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office is still ongoing, and police said they are constrained from comment as long as that probe is open. Meanwhile, the two unnamed police officers have returned to duty.
Clearly, there is something wrong with a system in which there seems to be no sense of urgency in accounting for a death in which police were involved. Not only is it unfair to those affected — the victim’s family as well as the police officers — but it also undermines the community trust in police that is critical to fighting crime.
How police-involved deaths are handled is under increased nationwide scrutiny because of controversies over the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., Tamir Rice in Cleveland and other high-profile cases. The case of Mr. Payton, shot Aug. 24, 2012, was highlighted in a recent Wall Street Journal article examining weaknesses in the national collection of data about deaths involving police that make it nearly impossible to know how many people officers kill each year. Among the troubling findings is that there are agencies, including Fairfax County police, that inexplicably don’t consider justifiable homicides by law enforcement officers as events that should be reported.
The situation is unacceptable. Congress, as we have urged, should put in place a system that ensures the collection of accurate information to assess the problem and inform the debate over reform. But there is also, as Mr. Payton’s case demonstrates, a need for local police officials to treat these cases as priorities and with more transparency. To their credit, D.C. police do report all uses of force — both fatal and non-fatal — in publicly available annual reports.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia offered little explanation — other than that a resolution of the case is expected “soon” — about why it has taken so long to get to the bottom of what happened when police responded to a call about family violence on that hot summer day. We hope that when prosecutors conclude this case, they will provide a full accounting of the events. If no criminality is found, that should not be the end of the matter. It will be important to know the results of any administrative review by the department and whether different procedures or actions might have produced a different result.
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