Jack Yantis is the latest person in Idaho to be killed at the hands of law enforcement officials, and his tragic death is sparking cries from the public demanding increased police accountability in Idaho.
Do you remember Jeanette Riley? She was the young, pregnant Native American mother of three who was shot outside a Sandpoint hospital during a mental health crisis that saw law enforcement officials escalate an already tense scenario by shooting her five times — the fatal shot directed at her heart.
What about Allen Hernandez? He was the 23-year-old Hispanic man who died in Homedale after an altercation with local police left him unresponsive. While the official cause of death is “unknown,” witnesses at the scene stated that the struggle between police and Allen lasted for “an extended period of time” and that Hernandez, who stopped breathing during this altercation, also suffered facial injuries.
Add these three tragic deaths to the five other known instances of police killings in Idaho in 2015 and we can see the growing concern that excessive force in our local law enforcement agencies is becoming the norm.
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As Idaho and the rest of America watch their local “peace” officers outfit themselves to go to war with their own communities, distrust of police and concern about discriminatory policing in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods are rapidly rising.
And while the national conversations about police reform might not seem pertinent to Idaho, the deaths of Jeanette, Allen and Jack should prompt loud cries for help to fix this growing problem.
Just this year, our office has received more than 40 complaints alleging some form of excessive police force or police misconduct from across Idaho. Even though many of these complaints are still under investigation, what this increase in complaints against law enforcement tells us is that we need to start having honest conversations between police and the communities they serve to increase transparency and accountability.
Some city and county law enforcement agencies are taking one positive step toward improving policing standards, and that’s the use of police body cameras. With good policies in place, recording of police-civilian encounters will promote police accountability, deter officer and civilian misconduct, and provide objective evidence to help resolve civilian complaints against police without significantly infringing on privacy.
But department policies on police body cameras must contain critical components to ensure that this new technology benefits all involved: Officers should not be given discretion as to when to turn their cameras on and off; officers should be held accountable for failing to use their cameras in the prescribed manner; and recordings of interest to the public, including uses of excessive force, should be retained for an appropriate amount of time, allowing for public review.
The easiest step to take would be increased requirements for data collection around the use of force in law enforcement agencies. This currently missing information would be instrumental in better understanding which agencies have higher rates of use of force, as well as the demographics of those civilians involved in police encounters.
If these policy recommendations were in place when Jeanette, Allen and Jack lost their lives, perhaps those safeguards would have saved their lives. But at the very least, we might have more answers today about what role excessive police force had in their untimely loss of life and who should be held responsible for their deaths.
By working with law enforcement to improve their policing practices, we can create an environment in which no community has to fear its own police department.
Kathy Griesmyer is public policy strategist for ACLU of Idaho.