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  1. Opinion

Column: More conversations needed on public safety

State attorney-elect Andrew Warren is seen in downtown Tampa on Thursday, December 29, 2016.
Published Apr. 21, 2017

Safety, justice, and accountability.

These three simple words encapsulate so much complexity about the fundamental principles of our criminal justice system. We all want safe neighborhoods and rely on law enforcement to lead the way. We want justice in the form of a fair and impartial system championed by police and prosecutors. We want accountability for all citizens—civilians and law enforcement alike—that holds everyone legally responsible for their actions. Arguably, no single incident tests these principles and the integrity of our system as much as officer-involved shootings.

The Tampa Bay Times' extensive investigative report, Why Cops Shoot, demonstrates the difficult intersection between safety, justice, and accountability when there is a police-involved shooting. It identifies many disconcerting statistics about police shootings, starting with the fact that neither the Florida Department of Law Enforcement nor the FBI keeps current statistics. The report identifies the frequency of shootings—one every 2.5 days—as well as the high number of shootings of unarmed victims—nearly 19 percent.

The Times also identifies racial disparities in that minorities, especially black men, are disproportionately victimized. We must understand the data and study how and why shootings occur to prevent them, but this important information sheds light on only part of the issue. Critically, what the data cannot measure is the amount of trust between the community and law enforcement. Moreover, behind every statistic is a community member with the unconditional entitlement to equal protection under the law.

The criminal justice stakeholders are aware of the problems identified in the Times' report. We don't dispute the findings; we welcome them into this difficult conversation as a step toward progress. We know that officer-involved shootings can circumvent the due process that our system guarantees. We recognize the need for objectivity in reviewing shootings. We understand the stark reality that a black man is more likely to be shot than his white counterpart.

We recognize these realities, and we are working to address them and are making progress. Officer-involved shootings in Hillsborough County rank far below the rest of Florida. Using the Times' data, Hillsborough's 39 shootings (over six years) equates to 2.9 shootings per 100,000 residents, approximately 30 percent less than the statewide average of 4.1 shootings per 100,000 residents, and 40 percent less than the 4.8 per 100,000 average for Florida's other largest counties. But we also recognize that we must continue to improve.

Our law enforcement community is already training officers to use de-escalation techniques and non-lethal force in both the classroom and through advanced simulators. Local law enforcement agencies provide officers with racial sensitivity and implicit bias training. During my first month in office, I began reviewing our agencies' use of force policies to ensure they promoted best practices such as prohibiting shooting at moving vehicles, rendering first aid, and proportional responses.

Most importantly, law enforcement and prosecutors must continue to engage the community to rebuild trust. That is a goal my office shares with every stakeholder in the criminal justice system. This starts with recognizing that we all share common motivations.

Officers don't want to be involved in shootings; their careers and lives hang in the balance as they wait for people who were not at the scene to spend countless hours rendering judgment on split-second decisions. And no civilian wants to be shot. No one wants a mother to hear that her son was killed during a traffic stop any more than we want a wife to hear that her husband was killed in the line of duty. We want safe neighborhoods as much as we want officers to do their jobs safely.

We must dedicate ourselves to candid dialogue on these issues. We need community forums to discuss issues of concern. We need education programs that teach people what to do during a traffic stop. We must translate our shared goals and motivations into mutual understanding: How it feels to be pulled over when you're black and worry whether you're going to make it home to your family, and how it feels to pull someone over and worry whether you're going to make it home to your family because you can't see what the driver is grabbing from the center console.

The State Attorney's Office has the responsibility to objectively review each officer-involved shooting in Hillsborough County. We will vigorously pursue the facts and ask the tough questions to achieve justice and accountability. As we do so, I promise to lead these difficult conversations about public safety in order to reduce officer-involved shootings.

Andrew Warren is state attorney for the 13th Judicial Circuit, which covers Hillsborough County.

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