"No Road Map, No Tour Guide" — The Path To Law Enforcement Accountability

Jul 10, 2020

Thousands have taken to the streets across the country, and right here in Wyoming, to call for an end to unchecked police misconduct. An investigation by Wyoming Public Radio and the Casper Star-Tribune found that in Wyoming law enforcement accountability can be a long, uncharted and demanding process. Naina Rao spoke with reporters Tennessee Watson and Shane Sanderson about what they found.

Naina Rao: Let's start with the big takeaway from your reporting. Law enforcement accountability is complicated. Why is that?

Tennessee Watson: So one thing I think, is that there might be a false perception that there's some sort of uniformity to law enforcement across the country, maybe because they all wear similar uniforms and they drive similar cars. But in reality, law enforcement is hyperlocal. And the sheriff is an elected official, or in the case of a police chief, that person is appointed, but they're appointed by elected officials. And so there are variations from agency to agency. And that is one reason that holding law enforcement accountable is complicated; because it differs from place to place and their receptiveness to feedback, how they handle grievances, that is going to differ from agency to agency.

NR: So how would you sum up the impact of that convoluted process for victims of police misconduct, but also, more generally for Wyoming?

TW: Well, I think the first impact is that the process of reforming behaviors and addressing police misconduct, it can be really slow. So that means that if there are issues that need to be addressed, the onus is often on those who have suffered from those issues to come forward and share their experience. And then, you know, if litigation ends up being what happens, I mean, a lawsuit can take years. So the process of change is slow, and that means that misconduct can continue.

Shane Sanderson: And another portion of that we run into is: we talked to a lawyer down in Denver, who basically only does civil rights stuff. And he told us that he thinks it's not uncommon for lawsuits on the issue to be dismissed by some of these procedural hurdles that show up in the litigation portion. And he told me that it's concerning to him that, you know, there are legitimate complaints that wind up well, just going away because of these procedural hurdles, and because the person filing the complaint isn't familiar. The data analysis we did on this came up with: for people who didn't retain their own lawyer only 4 percent of them received any kind of remedy after filing a civil rights complaint in federal court, in the State of Wyoming. And I think that speaks to yet another barrier and how many challenges there are, once you decide you want to do something.

NR: Right. So your reporting follows a sexual assault victim who filed a civil case against the Albany County Sheriff's Office. What drew you to this particular case?

SS: So Tennessee pitched this piece to me and I think when she pitched it, I was really intrigued by this fact that there's just not like a simple easy path, you know, there's not an answer in a box. You know, I cover the courts in Wyoming and I'm familiar with these type of lawsuits and I cover the police departments and I'm familiar with police misconduct and when she pitched this to me, I was like, man, if I was in, in somebody's shoes and I thought I'd had my civil rights violated by a law enforcement officer, I'm not sure I would know what to do. Which is pretty astounding, because I feel like I'm pretty close to these institutions and pretty familiar with them. And that's one of the things that's been interesting about this case, and hopefully, important or helpful about this story is that it at least gets us an idea of what remedies are available to people.

TW: You know, I think there's been media attention because of civil rights violations or misconduct that's been caught on video because that thing happened in public. And with this particular case, and the individual whose story we follow, the alleged misconduct, the alleged civil rights violations, they happened in an office inside of the sheriff's office. And so that's one of those things that not a lot of people would have known about if it wasn't for this individual coming forward. And so I think that's one of the reasons that I was drawn to report on this because it really makes the point that the onus is on the individuals who are experiencing these things to come forward and sort of shine the light of day on what's happening.

NR: So now I'm curious, how else did you investigate law enforcement accountability?

TW: One of the refrains that people say is if you don't like the sheriff's policy, or the culture of that office, then elect a new one. It turns out that 68 percent of races in the last four election cycles were uncontested and incumbents are 34 times more likely to win a sheriff's race than a challenger.

We also looked at the Wyoming Victim Bill of Rights. And we found out that that bill, while it suggests what an interaction between a victim and the criminal justice system should look like, there's actually no mechanism of accountability. And so given that, it really does put a lot of onus on a victim, to come forward and to figure out how to hold the criminal justice system and law enforcement accountable for misconduct or abuse that occurs.

Take a deeper dive into law enforcement accountability in this Sunday's Casper Star-Tribune.