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Top stories of 2015: public scrutiny of police

Written by Ben Allen, General Assignment Reporter | Dec 29, 2015 4:21 AM
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Through the end of 2015, WITF is reviewing the top stories of the year. Today, public scrutiny of police. 

Some midstate police departments are adding body cameras.

And one officer in Dauphin County faced prosecution for shooting and killing a man who had run during a traffic stop.

All around the region, there's an increasing scrutiny of police and their actions.

It's a national issue that has also played out in the midstate.

Calls for more accountability for police started with the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and picked up with questions about the treatment of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Sandra Bland in Texas, Walter Scott in South Carolina, and Eric Harris in Tulsa.

Sandra Thompson, the head of York's NAACP chapter, says body cameras can expose an officer's actions, but rules are important too.

"You don't want to have a camera that can be manipulated by a police officer. You want to make sure that whatever that camera is shooting, from start to finish, is what's going to be available to the community," she adds.

Thompson says it's best if a camera can upload footage automatically.

Police cameras became an issue in two different midstate cases this year.

Hummelstown police officer Lisa Mearkle shot and killed 59-year-old David Kassick while he was laying facedown in the snow, after he ran from her during a February traffic stop.

A camera recorded the Dauphin County officer's actions, and she eventually faced murder and manslaughter charges.

A jury eventually voted to acquit her.

"I'm relieved that the justice system actually worked, and I'm relieved and happy that I'm going to be able to get my life back to normal, like it was before," said Mearkle, after the verdict.

But it was one of the few times in the U.S. this year when a police officer faced prosecution for a fatal shooting.

Dane Merryman, head of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association says his group supports increasing transparency.

"You know, we would hope that people understand that things may not be what they perceive them to be in terms of judging how officers are performing their duties, particularly in cases involving use of force," says Merryman.

Merryman says the camera records directly in front of an officer, but may not show everything he or she is seeing.

However, a body camera also helped acquit a Gettysburg man for a charge of resisting arrest, and the borough is now conducting a review of police department policies.

"To know that their conduct can be and will be questioned, so it's really an understading, an awareness, of what the perceptions of the community are," says Merryman.

He says the increasing questions of police are just part of a cultural shift.

"I think that citizens are more and more questioning, why are things done the way that they are, and what's the rest of the story? So, I don't think that's unusual and I don't think that's unique to law enforcement," he adds.

Thompson adds the community needs to learn to respect police - she says she wants officers to return home safely every night.

She also says when an officer is involved in a shooting, outside experts should look at the case.

"We need to take it also out of the hands of the local district attorney's office who are working with these police day on and day out and have special prosecutors who don't have these special connections to police officers and the propensity to cover them," says Thompson.

Thompson says citizen review boards are important too.

And her group is also working with the community to show people how to respect police.

Thompson would like to see more focus on the topic next year.

"Hopefully it is, and it very well should be. I mean, we are definitely continually talking to the community about police responsibility."

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