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Op-Ed: Without An Independent Review, No Answers On Police Shootings (New York Daily News)

By Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman — Another black New Yorker ends up dead in a hail of police bullets, and everyone has questions. Are police officers, who increasingly carry semiautomatic weapons, firing too many shots at civilians? Does race determine who gets shot? Are current NYPD policies and training working?

As compelling as these questions are, one cannot intelligently debate the issues they raise because there is so little public information about police shootings and no independent review of them. The tragic shooting death of Sean Bell highlights the need for an independent agency to review all police shootings of civilians.

Starting with the information gap, the only detailed information available about police shootings is what the NYPD chooses to dole out, which is incomplete and often misleading.

For instance, Police Department officials say that the shots fired by officers are down this year from earlier times. But an internal NYPD report reveals that last year’s shootings came with a 30% increase from 2004 in the number of shots fired by officers in each incident in which only the officers fired, and a doubling of police shots when others also fired a weapon. Maybe the numbers have gone down, maybe they have gone up, but the public has no way of really knowing.

Equally troubling is the lack of information about race. We recently asked the department to disclose the race of civilians shot by NYPD officers over the past 10years. As it turns out, the NYPD may not even track that information. To discuss the role of race in police shootings, the department and the public need the facts.

Beyond the lack of information is the absence of any review outside the Police Department of shootings here in the city and of the NYPD policies and training bearing on them. District attorneys review some police shootings, but those are secret proceedings and focus narrowly on whether a crime has been committed. The Civilian Complaint Review Board only responds to complaints filed against individual officers. The board does not investigate any case in which a criminal prosecution is pending and focuses on alleged misconduct by individual officers.

The lack of public information and independent review makes it almost impossible to have reasoned public discussion about police shootings or to implement meaningful reform of department policies and practices. That compromises public safety, undermines police-community relations and may lead to unfair criticism of the Police Department and its officers.

The solution is to create an independent agency to review all on-duty police shootings of civilians. It would collect and publicly report information about shootings, like how many occur; the neighborhoods in which they occur; how many shots are fired; what weapons are used, and the race of the civilians shot. It also would review policies, practices and training implicated in shootings and make reform recommendations.

We do not start with any presumption about the propriety of specific shootings or about department policies and practices. We strongly believe, however, that police shootings raise such important issues, particularly in light of concerns about the role of race in certain shootings, that independent reporting and review are essential.

Dunn and Lieberman are, respectively, the associate legal director and executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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