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Opinion: More transparency in police shootings
Guest column

Opinion: More transparency in police shootings

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Dear Mayor Engen, Missoula County commissioners, Missoula City Council, Missoula County Sheriff McDermott, and Missoula Police Chief White:

As voting citizens and residents of Missoula, we are writing to you about the officer-involved shootings that killed Brendan Galbreath in Missoula on Aug. 12, and Johnny Lee Perry II in Missoula County on Aug. 29. Brendan Galbreath was a 21-year-old UCLA pre-med student, and a member of the Blackfeet Nation. Johnny Lee Perry was African-American.

We appreciate the public protection provided by the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office. We applaud your adoption of the JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, inclusion) principles, and your efforts to develop mobile crisis teams that respond to social crises with appropriate resources.

At the same time, we understand that law enforcement officers carry traumatic retentions in their bodies and nervous systems due to frequent exposure to high-stress situations that are potentially dangerous to their own safety. These traumatic retentions can undermine judgment and lead to snap decisions when a potential threat is perceived, even when an actual threat is not present. In these situations, the fight-or-flight system is engaged, and the body reacts extremely quickly, too fast for the more complex intelligence of the amygdala to inform the decision. For an introduction to this evidence-based understanding, please consider reading "My Grandmother’s Hands" by Resmaa Menakem, a trauma therapist who has worked with thousands of law enforcement officers.

Across the country we are seeing officers cause great harm when they are not able to differentiate between a real threat and a perception that triggers their fight-or-flight nervous system. Body cameras and other video footage show that it is not uncommon for factual evidence to contradict police accounts of altercations (see for example the Aug. 28 article in the New York Times, "When Police Lie, the Innocent Pay. Some Are Fighting Back”).

It is reasonable in this context to be questioning officer accounts of the incidents on Aug. 12 and 29. We are concerned that the decision to withhold the police dash cam video of the death of Brendan Galbreath may be made to protect the officer rather than to prioritize public trust and safety. We are wondering if other options were truly exhausted before the bullets that ultimately killed Johnny Lee Perry were fired, and whether they were necessary to protect the public. We are concerned that the importance of public trust may not be fully considered in these situations.

We urge you to take responsibility for this situation by releasing the footage, and by publicly committing to transparency and honesty in these cases and in future cases involving Missoula’s officers. In addition, we urge you to create a working environment at the Missoula Police Department and the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office where the daily traumas impacting our public safety officers do not inadvertently become a public menace. 

We need your leadership to navigate this chapter in our collective public life. This issue affects all of us.

This opinion is signed by the following Missoula County residents: Jenny Mish, Susie Clarion, Marit Olson, Linda Lee, Smai Fullerton, Constanza McPahlen, Annabelle Winne, Becky Douglas, Gary Delp, Lara Tomov, Winona Bateman, Nicole Ichtertz, Beth Youngblood, KD Dickinson, Nancy Siegel, Penelope Baquero, Megan Thornton and Alysha Goheen.

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