Troopers can’t be above law
Blair County residents seldom have reason to pay attention to what’s happening in Northampton County, which is situated north of Philadelphia, along Pennsylvania’s border with New Jersey.
But an issue that has evolved in that county is one that should be of interest not only to people of Blair, but to residents of all other counties across Pennsylvania.
The issue is whether a shooting incident involving on-duty Pennsylvania State Police troopers should be the subject of an independent probe rather than the “in-house” investigatory process currently used to decide whether or not troopers acted correctly in their handling of the incident.
A Keystone State resident need not be harboring negative or vindictive attitudes regarding the state police to acknowledge that the right answer to that question is “yes.”
Municipal police departments routinely ask the state police to conduct an independent investigation when someone has suffered serious injuries, been wounded or has died at the hands of their officers. It’s not unreasonable for such an expectation to apply also to the state police.
The state police should welcome such scrutiny by outside law enforcement as a means for maintaining public confidence. However, in Northampton County, that’s not the way the issue has been playing out.
Rather than welcoming an independent investigation after state police shot to death a man last May 20 who ignored their commands and attempted to light the fuse of a firework mortar around his neck, the state police resisted an independent investigation.
The state police also opposed the idea of a grand jury impaneled to investigate crime in Northampton County evaluating the independent-probe issue and submitting a report.
The state police expressed the position that such a grand jury review would overstep the original purpose for which the jury was impaneled.
But Northampton Judge Stephen Baratta nevertheless rejected a state police request that the grand jury be disbanded, now that its original work has been completed, ruling instead that the panel be allowed to make recommendations regarding the current state police in-house policy.
It’s important to note that, prior to the judge’s decision, the grand jury did rule in September that the shooting in question was justified.
Beyond his ruling about evaluating state police policy, Baratta criticized the state police for what he characterized as being afraid of public scrutiny.
“You’re saying no one’s allowed to tell the state police what to do,” Baratta told a state police lawyer at a hearing on Nov. 17. “You’re afraid they’re (members of the grand jury) going to make recommendations that you’re not going to like.”
Agencies operating wholly or in part with public funds shouldn’t be exempted from scrutiny, and the state police are not an exception.
And longtime policy, which the state police cited as grounds for opposing independent investigations into incidents involving shooting, wasn’t a good argument.
It’s counterproductive from a public-respect perspective for the state police to reject transparency. It’s neither in the agency’s best interests nor the public’s.
The honesty, integrity and professionalism of the state police generally are outstanding. However, the state police aren’t immune to mistakes or errors in judgment.
Independent investigations can go a long way toward ensuring that those high standards remain intact.