Tuesday, November 30, 2021
Nov. 30, 2021

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In Our View: Police reform that serves public, officers overdue

The Columbian

A fatal shooting by Clark County sheriff’s deputies last week highlights the need for transparency and public involvement in police reform efforts.

A statement from the Vancouver Police Department said Kfin Karuo, a Vancouver man in his 20s, had pointed a gun at deputies before he was shot. The preliminary report said a gun was in Karuo’s hand when his body was found.

The Southwest Washington Independent Investigative Response Team is investigating the shooting with the Vancouver Police Department as the lead agency. The team consists of detectives from police departments in Vancouver, Battle Ground and Camas, and two nonlaw enforcement community members also are involved.

Any fatal shooting is a tragedy, whether or not police are involved. And the fact that Karuo’s father died later the same day adds to the family’s heartbreak. But if Karuo did, indeed, point a gun at officers, then we also must recognize the officers’ duty to protect themselves, their fellow officers and their community.

Regardless of whether the shooting is ruled to be justified, police reform that serves both the public and law enforcement is long overdue. Reform should not be conflated with calls to “defund the police.” Those calls largely have been quelled, as a rise in crime has provided a reminder of the need for fully supported law enforcement.

It is possible to demand accountability, improve police practices and still “back the blue.” The goals are not mutually exclusive.

In Vancouver, Police Chief James McElvain reports that strides toward improved policing are being made. That is good news for the public and for officers; sincere reform will help improve public trust in law enforcement and help officers better perform their jobs. Law enforcement agencies throughout the region can learn from Vancouver’s example.

Beginning in June 2019, the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum, based in Washington, D.C., reviewed the Vancouver department. That followed four police shootings in a brief period. City leaders then formed a task force to address the organization’s recommendations.

A report completed in June 2020 offered 84 suggestions to improve the department’s culture, policies and use of force; details of the task force’s work can be found at www.beheardvancouver.org/taskforceonpolicing. Now, McElvain tells the Vancouver City Council that 74 of those recommendations have been addressed.

Among the remaining items, seven are related to the creation of an internal incident review board aimed at officer accountability regarding the use of force. That is among the seminal concerns that triggered national unrest last year over racial justice and police actions. In Washington, several laws adopted this year address the use of force and better define when it is warranted.

Meanwhile, another step toward accountability is ensuring that officers who have been fired for malfeasance or misfeasance cannot easily find employment with another law enforcement agency. Media reports have demonstrated that such cases are common throughout Washington.

The implementation of body cameras is another necessary change. Both the Vancouver police and the sheriff’s office are moving in that direction, and McElvain said: “I think that the officers are excited for this opportunity. This program will help add transparency and support the good work they do every day.”

Transparency and community involvement are the most important steps to ensure police accountability.