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Who shot Ashli Babbitt?

OPINION by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, guest editorial | May 2, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

When the government, or an employee of the government, takes the life of one of its citizens, it would seem that a lack of transparency would be considered poor form. Of all the procedures, rules, laws and policies, being open with the public on these fatal matters would seem to be a minimum requirement.

Ashli Babbitt was one of the people who stormed the Capitol during the Jan. 6 siege/protest/Mickey Mouse insurrection attempt. As she attempted to breach some doors inside the Capitol, a U.S. Capitol Police officer shot and killed her. So say the papers.

The Washington Post reports that authorities "determined that there was insufficient evidence to prove Babbitt's civil rights were violated, and that it was reasonable for the officer to believe he was firing in self-defense or in defense of members of Congress and aides who were fleeing the House chamber." Also from the paper: "To convict law enforcement officers of civil rights violations, including shootings resulting in death, prosecutors must be able to prove that an officer used 'objectively unreasonable' force and 'willfully' used more force than he thought was necessary. The high bar of willfulness makes bringing charges against an officer difficult, and [last] Wednesday's outcome was not unexpected by legal observers under the circumstances." OK. That part of the process has played out.

But what is the name of the officer? Nobody's saying. Not the Capitol Police. Not the prosecutors. Not the officer's defense team.

The Capitol Police are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (!), and those in the know, such as reporters in the capital, say the department offers little public information. Even after big events like Jan. 6.

By law, District of Columbia officers are identified no more than five days after serious uses of force. But the Capitol Police operate under different rules. And those rules are giving rise to a lot of grief -- and conspiracies -- among those who might have sympathy for Ashli Babbitt.

The reason for withholding the officer's name is because the officer has supposedly been threatened. But other officers are named immediately. We know who shot Daunte Wright in Minnesota the other day. We know who shot 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago late last month. We know the name of the former Dallas cop who shot Harding University graduate Botham Jean in his own apartment, mistaking his flat for her own. We know the name of the former Minneapolis officer who knelt on George Floyd's neck.

And we knew these names before any of them became "former" officers, went to trial, or were charged with crimes. Some of them still haven't been, and may never be.

Forbes reports that Congress has not required its Capitol Police to follow the same rules as other metro police outfits. According a Forbes reporter, the U.S. Capitol Police simply put out an email saying that withholding an officer's name in this case is "standard procedure when there are concerns for an officer's safety, as there are in this case." That would seem to be part of the gig. Any police officer who shoots somebody on duty might be expected to get harassing emails or social media posts. But there are laws protecting them, too.

This isn't the first time the Capitol Police have kept the public in the dark about publicly funded officers protecting publicly funded property. In 2013, a woman was driving erratically near the West Lawn when Capitol Police and Secret Service fired into her car. She was killed. The names of the cops were never released.

The Capitol Police isn't a small force. It boasts 2,100 sworn officers and a $516 million budget. For comparison, Atlanta has 1,770 sworn officers on duty.

The Washington Post quoted Terrance W. Gainer, a former chief of the Capitol Police from 2002 to 2006, in a story after the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol building: "Congress hasn't made the rules apply to the department, so we didn't have to meet the expectations that a state or city police agency have," adding, "If we are not transparent with the public for whom we are responsible, then what we are doing is suspect." We couldn't have said it better. This may take the proverbial Act of Congress to correct. But transparency in government -- in the most momentous of occasions, as when the government kills somebody -- is worth it.

An Act of Congress it'll have to be.


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