Daily WTF: The Silence Surrounding Police Custody Deaths

Ten days ago, 16-year-old Gynnya McMillen was found dead in a holding cell of the Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. She had been at the facility for less than 24 hours, and initial reports stated that she had been brought in for committing violence against a parent – though neither her sister nor her parents have substantiated that claim. Local police and officials of the Detention Center have been similarly tight-lipped, refusing to say why she was in the cell overnight (not standard procedure); why, if she’d been checked on every 15 minutes like she was supposed to, she was found mysteriously dead; where the surveillance footage is; what had been done after she’d been found unresponsive; and why the coroner stated that there was no cause of death.

As we have seen in the past two years, relations between the public and the police (especially the black community and the police) are strained. We can blame socio-economic conditions, but the fact of the matter is that there are some bad police officers who take advantage of their position and harm others. Look at ex-cop Daniel Holtzclaw, who was just sentenced to over 260 years in jail for sexually assaulting numerous women. Look at Brian Encinia, the state trooper that arrested Sandra Bland (who also died while in police custody), who was recently found guilty of lying under oath. Look at Ray Tensing, the University of Cincinnati officer who purposefully shot and killed Sam Dubose and lied about being in danger. Look at the over 1000 people killed by police officers in 2015 or how difficult it is to find accurate, self-reported, or government-reported information about police corruption, use of excessive force, use of bullets, and profiling. There are reasons not everyone trusts the police.

And keeping silent about people who have died in police custody does not help. If we have safeguards in place – officers checking on people every 15 minutes, cameras in cells, county-appointed healthcare officials documenting moods – and if everyone is doing their job, then there is no reason why an official can’t immediately say, “According to the footage, Ms. McMillen suffered a stroke and died. We are awaiting the official autopsy report to determine why.” Yes, some people will be unhappy with that explanation, but if there is irrefutable evidence and if officials are seen to be transparent, there will be significantly less outrage and speculation. And it will go a long ways towards improving public relations.

So we – the Black Lives Matter movement, The Counted, and the rest of America – need to keep lobbying for transparent release of information. It is no longer enough for an officer to say, “This happened this way because I said it did.” No, it needs to be proven in both the court of law and the court of public opinion that everyone behaved responsibly and reasonably and did their best to ensure retention of life and freedom. Officials need to release statements and video footage as soon as possible. They need to hand over personal effects to family members. Courts need to award damages and charge police officers in a timely manner. In a word, everyone, regardless of their level of authority or skin color, needs to be held accountable for their actions. Then and only then will public relations with the police be restored.

To learn how to support Gynnya’s family, go to their Facebook page here.

* Photo taken from http://www.clutchmagonline.com/tag/gynnya-mcmillen/

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