By Kate Heston, Brooke Newman and Kyra O’Connor News21
ARLINGTON, Texas – It was 1:16 a.m. when Trena Miller and her wife heard a knock at the door at their home. A police officer told them their son had been injured during a traffic stop.
Thirteen minutes after the knock, 20-year-old Tre’Shun Miller died at a hospital – without either of his mothers there.
Trena Miller, seeking to learn what happened during the 2019 traffic stop, requested records from the Arlington Police Department. Police denied the request, stating she had to wait until they completed the investigation. She pursued the records through the district attorney’s office and received them – nearly six months after Tre’Shun’s death.
For Miller, understanding what happened the night her son died – through complete, unedited body camera footage, police reports and medical documents – changed her family’s life.
“Not knowing sometimes how your baby died, not knowing if he suffered or not, not knowing the details of what took your child from you can be so much more agonizing because it allows your mind to wander,” she said.
Since she obtained the records, Miller said she has helped others in nearby Fort Worth by sharing information about how to access information and advocating for open records.
Across the country, that effort to increase transparency has become a standard rallying cry in the police reform movement, with activists demanding that law enforcement open up their use-of-force reports, body-camera footage and misconduct data to improve accountability and build trust with the community.
The efforts have been met with resistance.
Congress repeatedly has failed to pass comprehensive legislation mandating more transparency, specifically in areas of police misconduct and use of force. State legislatures often thwart transparency bills, and police unions continue to fight such efforts at both the local and state level.
Joe Ferguson, deemed “Chicago’s longest-serving watchdog” by the Chicago Sun Times, said the government hasn’t made transparency an institutional value – one of the largest hurdles to accomplishing transparency within policing.
“We are not going to get where we need to be until government is proactive about transparency. And it won’t be perfect,” said Ferguson, who spent 12 years as Chicago’s inspector general. “People will still – and constituencies will still – need to push, and want and need more.”
Americans are doing just that: Demanding more.
Although widespread, comprehensive reforms to increase transparency in policing haven’t materialized, some policymakers, law enforcement officials and community leaders are trying to drive change – however incremental. They have passed laws and adopted policies to open records and track behavior, or forced departments to do so through orders or lawsuits. And when some departments still deny transparency efforts, groups have taken on the task themselves.
“Transparency is a pathway to a resolution,” Miller said. “I do believe that because if I don’t believe it, then what am I fighting for?”
POLICING IS 'EXTRAORDINARILY UNREGULATED'
The list of what the public doesn’t know about America’s roughly 18,000 local law enforcement agencies is long.
The federal government doesn’t track how often local police departments use force. It doesn’t keep tabs on officer misconduct cases or officers fired for bad behavior. And it doesn’t require law enforcement agencies to collect their own data in these areas.
Without collecting and analyzing data, departments can’t identify problems and implement change. And without releasing the information, public trust in law enforcement is broken or nonexistent.
In a recent survey of 3,000 people nationwide, commissioned by tech company Veritone, 42% said lack of transparency had hurt their perception of police in the past five years.
Walter Katz spent two decades in public service with a focus in law enforcement accountability and oversight. In 2019, he led the design and development of the Office of Violence Prevention in Chicago. As vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy dedicated to research and solutions, Katz researches and writes extensively about police reform.
“Policing is one of the most high risk professions, with tons of contact with civilians, and the irony is that, despite how high risk the profession is, it is extraordinarily unregulated,” he said.
When the government tried to keep better tabs, it failed.
The FBI began collecting use-of-force data in 2019 to try and get a better handle on incidents of excessive force across the country. But the government can’t force police departments to use it, and many don’t.
As a result, the database is underreported, and the FBI does not meet the requirements to operate the database beyond December 2022, according to the federal Office of Management and Budget.
The database collects data from three events: when a fatality occurs; when there’s serious bodily injury; or when a firearm is discharged. Events that don’t meet this criteria are not collected.
“They weren’t capturing very much,” said Lewis Coggeshall, a police sergeant in Arlington, which is between Fort Worth and Dallas. “We had 900 and something use of force incidents last year, but only two of those were reportable to the FBI.”
The lack of a federal mandate to collect or report certain critical measurements of policing accountability means states have different standards.
For example, Arizona keeps no database law enforcement agencies can use to check an applicant’s discipline records during the hiring process. State Sen. Martin Quezada, a Democrat who represents west Phoenix, said the lack of information results in problematic officers “gaming the system and bouncing from agency to agency.”
Other states have tried to address what’s often called the “wandering officer phenomenon.” Wisconsin, for example, has a new law that requires law enforcement agencies to review personnel files from previous employers.
In the calendar year after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, 49 states proposed legislation to increase transparency in policing. Of those, 42.8 percent focused on misconduct, according to a News21 analysis of data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Overall, the bills had vastly different goals, ranging from increasing protections for police officers to what activists have described as “throwing the library open” when it comes to records.
Only 18 percent of the bills proposed since mid-2020 had been enacted as of July 2022, according to a News21 analysis of bill tracking by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A longer version of this article first appeared at News21. News21 reporters Nathan Collins and Tirzah Christopher contributed to this report. Brooke Newman is an Inasmuch Foundation Fellow. This report is part of “In Pursuit,” an investigation into police reform and accountability in America, produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program. For more stories, visit inpursuit.news21.com.