Police Departments, We Have a Problem: An Erosion of Trust

Aurora (IL) Police Commander Kristen Ziman was both surprised and a bit offended by praise heaped on the Aurora Police Department for its reinvestigation of a case that prompted the exoneration of Jonathan Moore. Moore had served twelve years for murder when new evidence suggested that he wasn’t the perpetrator. Ziman didn’t think the decision to reinvestigate the case was unusual. It’s the kind of integrity her department shows every day. Doing the right thing, she reasoned, should not be so exceptional as to receive widespread recognition and praise.

What garnered all of the attention?

When the Aurora Police Department received a tip from an eyewitness that brought into question the murder conviction of Jonathan Moore, they investigated it. When the investigation suggested Moore was innocent, they worked with the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project and presented the new evidence to the Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon. McMahon assigned the case to assistant states’ attorneys who had not been involved originally. All of this prompted Judge Tim Sheldon’s decision to vacate Moore’s conviction. Moore was released from prison last month, 63 years before the end of his sentence.

After the story was reported, the Aurora Police Department was flooded with expressions of gratitude and praise. That’s the part that stunned Commander Ziman. “Reopening a case after discovering the possibility of a wrongful conviction should never elicit public shock,” she noted here in a The Beacon-News, a Chicago Sun-Times Publication.

Ziman said that there was never even a question about what to do in the face of the new evidence…“everyone agreed to move on to the next logical step—to right the wrong.”

Puzzled by all of the hoopla, she said she began to reflect upon the “headlines involving police officers from across the globe who have coerced confessions, covered up improprieties and committed criminal acts. I realized that those tiny cuts resonate with the public and that it might come as a complete shock when a police department acts contrary to these perceptions.”

Most Americans have been raised to respect the police, to view them as honorable public servants, to give them the benefit of any doubt. They put their lives on the line every day to protect us and keep our communities safe. The vast majority of public safety officials deserve the revered status that Americans have traditionally afforded them.

But DNA-proven wrongful convictions have revealed instances in which police refused to recognize or investigate new post-conviction evidence of innocence or to admit error.  Police callousness, coercion, and illegalities have contributed to wrongful convictions with enough frequency to shake Americans’ confidence in the judgment and integrity of public safety officials and in the fairness of the justice system.

Ziman saw in the praise for her department an underlying erosion of trust. As in any profession, a minority of bad actors can taint the perception of everyone, including those worthy of our respect. This often prompts a profession to demand better of itself.

When the public perceives police doing the right thing as exceptional, public safety officers have a significant perception problem. Police Commander Ziman summed it up: “Police officers have a lot of work to do toward earning back the trust of the public.”

Perhaps it’s time for the police to police themselves. Tolerating anything less than doing the right thing diminishes public trust. It unfairly detracts from the courage shown and sacrifices made every day by our men and women in blue. Tragically and ironically, it threatens public safety and undermines our best efforts toward an overarching fundamental American ideal: Justice for all.

5 responses to “Police Departments, We Have a Problem: An Erosion of Trust

  1. Excellent commentary, Nancy. Police miscounduct is an age-old problem, that harms the image of the overwhelming percentage of people in law enforcement who do outstanding work. While you are correct that the police must do a better job of policing themselves, it’s also important that the press and the public remain vigilant. When journalists and the public don’t fulfill their obligations to observe and speak up, bad things can happen in any organization. The consequences when bad things happen in law enforcement are often worse than when they happen in other ogranizations because of the great power vested in those tasked with keeping society safe.

    Unfortunately, journalists and the public frequently drop their guard and look the other way when something is clearly wrong in law enforcement. That, of course, just encourages more bad behavior, and soon the department is embroiled in a full-scale scandal. I am always grateful for those brave souls who speak up when they see wrong. We just need more of them.

  2. Docile Jim Brady – Columbus OH 43209

    Great writing Nancy and great follow-up Martin .

    We need many more Commander Zimans in out LEO forces .

    Journalism also needs improvement .
    There was no excuse , not even a reason , for the editing of the 911 tape in the Zimmerman case .

    The media could also use more Nancy Petros .

  3. Pingback: Good Cop Kristen Ziman Misses the Point… | Wrongful Convictions Blog

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  5. Pingback: Why I Think the US Justice System is Broken – and Why It’s Not Getting Fixed | Wrongful Convictions Blog

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