Bob Neal

We don’t often see the words “accountability” and “justice” in the same sentence. Maybe we should.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison paired those words last week while speaking of the conviction of former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd.

We have needed government accountability perhaps since we first formed governments. Police are getting most of the focus now, but aren’t the only public employees lacking answerability. Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services comes to mind, too.

Here’s more of what Ellison said: “I would not call (the) verdict ‘justice’ . . . because justice implies true restoration. It is accountability, which is the first step toward justice. And now the cause of justice is in your hands . . . the people of the United States.”

Let me go beyond Ellison and suggest that transparency, not accountability, is really the first step toward justice. Accountability arises from transparency. Only if we can see what government is doing for and to us can we have accountability and then justice.

Here’s how the process worked in Minneapolis, again in Ellison’s words: “The people who stopped and raised their voices . . . were a bouquet of humanity. A man from the neighborhood just walking to get a drink. A child going to buy a snack with her cousin. An off-duty firefighter on her way to a community garden.” People “who pressed record on their cell phones.” When just-plain-folks in front of Cup Foods saw an act that wasn’t right, checked it out and shared what they saw, Chauvin’s act became transparent.

This isn’t always how it happens, or will happen. Examples. Oklahoma’s legislature has passed a bill making it a crime to photograph police. On Wednesday, a judge in North Carolina refused to release, for up to 45 days, videos of police killing an unarmed man.

A third example from here in Maine. Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Oxford, has filed a bill to create a way to suspend sheriffs during investigations for criminal or unethical acts. As it is, a sheriff being investigated continues unhampered as a county’s chief law-enforcement officer. The governor may remove a sheriff from office, but that is a nuclear option. Keim wanted a compromise, suspension pending investigation of charges.

The State and Local Government Committee all but killed her bill, voting 10-2 that it “ought not to pass.” Guess why. The sheriffs reneged on their support of the bill, and the committee cowed to them. Or cowered.

Keim introduced her bill because Oxford County’s former sheriff stayed in office in 2017 while being investigated internally and by the FBI. That left him in a position to destroy records that investigators might have needed to examine.

“What happened with the Oxford County sheriff should never be allowed to happen again when we can put a simple process in the law to fix it,” Keim said.  “Just because (sheriffs are) elected, they’re not above accountability. Their resistance is troubling.”

Another example from here. Look back at the three-part series by Maine newspaper reporters, published last week in the Sun Journal, on how misconduct by troopers goes unreported to the public, even when troopers have been disciplined by their superiors.

While police — sorry to keep harping on law enforcement, but current examples come heavily from the serve-and-protect sector — are known for a “blue wall of silence” when an officer misbehaves, some cops are looking farther ahead. And, perhaps, more clearly.

Patrick Skinner, a violent-crimes detective in Savannah, wrote in the Washington Post that systemic reform is also personal reform. He suggests two steps cops can take to bend back toward justice. “We must not circle the wagons. ‘Not all cops’ is exactly the wrong reaction. Even though that is true (that) not all cops are bad, it is irrelevant. Systemic reform is inseparable from individual change.”

His second step: “Don’t escalate trivial matters into life-or-death confrontations. Treat your neighbors as if they were your neighbors. The truth is that we do not get to tell our neighbors, those whose communities we police, how we will do our job. They tell us.”

Virginia Kerr, responding to Skinner, wrote: “We were taught at the (U.S.) Army Military Police Academy that any wrongdoing by a fellow officer was personal. We were taught that any bad conduct by a member of our police would jeopardize our safety and would have a deleterious effect on the respect and trust individuals place in us.”

Skinner: “I’m worried. I’m even scared. Not of big changes, but that they might not happen.”

Bob Neal agrees with Keith Ellison that, “Nobody’s beneath the law, and no one is above it.” Neal can be reached at [email protected]


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