Ten days after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in a St. Louis suburb, tensions remain high and public skepticism about the integrity of the investigation has increased. Law enforcement officials have fueled that mistrust by offering conflicting accounts of the shooting and by failing to timely release basic information such as the officer's name, 911 tapes and the preliminary autopsy report. The failures of leadership in Ferguson reinforce the importance of preserving strong public records laws and of police and prosecutors providing more information, not less, in times of crisis.
Law enforcement officials in Missouri lost another opportunity Monday to build credibility for their investigation into the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown. A preliminary private autopsy made at the request of Brown's family found the teenager was shot at least six times, including four times in the right arm and twice in the head. The news conference about those findings was broadcast live on cable television. Hours later the county medical examiner's office said in a statement that Brown was hit six to eight times in the head and chest but would not release other information. That leaves only the comments of the independent examiner who did not have access to Brown's clothing or bullets removed from his body. The more information investigators release, including the preliminary autopsy, the better chance they can start to restore public confidence in the investigation.
The public availability of official autopsy reports and the ability to independently evaluate their findings are critical checks on government. In 2001, Florida journalists sought access to photos from the autopsy of Dale Earnhardt, who crashed and was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500. After Earnhardt's family protested, the knee-jerk reaction by then-Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature was to narrow the law to seal autopsy photos, videos and other recordings. That makes it more difficult for the media and others to determine the accuracy of official causes of death in crimes and other high-profile situations.
The timely release of 911 tapes is another way to keep the public informed. In Ferguson, authorities kept stalling the release of those tapes while computer hackers released at least partial recordings that were posted on the Internet. In Florida, law enforcement agencies routinely release 911 tapes in a timely manner, and an effort in 2010 by then-House Speaker Larry Cretul to exempt those recordings from public records was defeated. Those tapes are key tools to hold emergency personnel accountable for their actions.
Prosecutors often want to hold evidence in criminal cases as close as possible. In Ferguson, there is no mystery how Brown died. A cellphone video was broadcast Monday of the teenager lying in the middle of the street and two officers standing nearby. Yet Ferguson police have repeatedly stalled in releasing the preliminary autopsy report, 911 tapes, the name of the officer who shot and killed Brown and other information. When the officer's name was released, so was video of Brown participating in a convenience story robbery earlier that day. Then came conflicting statements from the police chief about whether the officer knew Brown was a robbery suspect when he stopped Brown as he walked down the street.
No wonder law enforcement in this case is viewed with suspicion and distrust. There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the police shooting in Ferguson and the disturbances that have followed, including the dangers of militarizing the police, protecting the right to peacefully protest and the power of social media to drive public opinion. But the importance of public records and the timely release of accurate information by law enforcement should be toward the top of the list.