Transparency is best policy

The issue: Michigan State Police released the name of a man killed on the road by an unmarked MSP car.

Our view: Law enforcement agencies need to apply a policy of transparency with an even hand across the state

The death of Samuel Sterling is a tragedy.

The 25-year-old Grand Rapids man was struck by an unmarked Michigan State Police vehicle on April 17, and died at the hospital. He did not receive his due process in relation to the state police, the Grand Rapids Police Department and Wyoming Police Department, who were pursuing him based on multiple warrants for his arrest.

Expressions of grief are appropriate. A statement from The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and the FBI Field Office Detroit agreed it was “tragic.” The trooper who was driving was suspended without pay. Last week, video footage of the incident was released in the “spirit of transparency” and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, according to Bridge Michigan reporting, called Sterling’s death “unacceptable” and said her “heart is with his family and the Grand Rapids community.”

But acknowledgements of tragedy and gestures of “transparency” were not evident in October, when Michigan State Police investigated the death of 41-year-old Brandy May Neibert, who was shot to death when the Northern Michigan Mutual Aid Task Force Emergency Response Team tried to execute a search warrant in Norwich Township.

Nor were they apparent in the Jan. 27 death of Jake Turner, a 35-year-old Kalkaska man who was shot to death in a deer blind by state troopers after an alleged domestic violence incident. Turner was found slumped over a loaded gun. Neibert died with a knife in one hand and a pot lid in the other.

In both cases, law enforcement agencies involved in these incidents wouldn’t release the names of the dead until weeks after they were killed. Most of the information about these tragedies was obtained through Record-Eagle reporter Elizabeth Brewer’s dogged pursuit of Michigan Freedom of Information Act records.

We realize that our police, deputies, troopers and conservation officers face death every day. In some cases, they have to act fast to protect their own lives. This doesn’t make what happens any less tragic, as tragedy also ripples past blue lines, into families and communities — on all fronts.

But the new policy, apparently applied at whim, is a poorly reasoned policy.

And information reported promptly to the public in the aftermath is fundamental to understanding what happened.

In any case, transparency needs to be part of that policy — whenever and wherever tragic circumstances occur.

— The Traverse City Record-Eagle


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