Editorial: Police double standards erode public trust

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Double standards infuriate us like few other things in life. To paraphrase the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote on pornography, we know a double standard when we see one.

There are endless examples of double standards, which are different sets of rules for different people. Sometimes they’re relatively innocuous, like a baseball umpire who has a generous strike zone for a famous, veteran pitcher but squeezes the zone for a rookie.

Other double standards are not so innocent. The media howled with indignation when it was revealed the Justice Department had abused its power in seizing records from reporters. This government action was an infringement on freedom of the press. But free speech is routinely sacrificed at the altar of political correctness at universities across the country. When restrictions on speech don’t directly affect them, journalists tend to be far less outraged.

Closer to home, we have seen a double standard at work in how our local police department releases information. Contrast the cases of police officer Peter Laboy with those of Taft Sellers and Julian Dawkins. All were shooting victims in Alexandria in 2013. Sellers and Dawkins were killed, while Laboy miraculously survived.

But within hours of Laboy’s shooting, police officials held a press conference at the scene and provided details. In the following hours and days, the pertinent facts of the case were made public. When one of their own was the victim, Alexandria’s police department was extremely forthcoming with information.

Conversely, Sellers was apparently shot and killed by law enforcement officers. We say apparently because, though Sellers was killed in February, Alexandria police still have not said who fired the fatal shot, whether Sellers fired his gun or whether police tried to use non-lethal force. Instead of a steady stream of information, there has been silence and a resistance to calls for an outside investigation into Sellers’ death.

Details of the Dawkins shooting also are murky. He was seen arguing with an off-duty Arlington County sheriff’s deputy overnight May 22 and later died of a gunshot wound. Dawkins’ family members understandably want answers. Local residents are expressing skepticism that the shooter will be brought to justice.

The double standard here is very clear. When a police officer is the victim, information flows. When a law enforcement officer is involved in a fatal shooting, the information spigot is shut off.

In pointing out this double standard, we are in no way minimizing the tragedy that befell Laboy, his family, friends and colleagues. We view him as a hero who risked his life to protect Alexandrians. Nor are we “convicting” law enforcement officers of committing any crimes in connection with the deaths of Sellers and Dawkins. But the contrast in available information in these cases is undeniable.

Trust is the most fundamental building block in any relationship. By their actions and non-actions in the deaths of Sellers and Dawkins Alexandria’s police department is losing the trust of city residents. It’s time for some answers.