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Lack of police transparency breeds anger and mistrust

Philadelphia police continue to keep mother of man shot by cops in the dark.

Tanya Brown-Dickerson learned of son Brandon Tate-Brown's death from a radio report. He was killed in December traffic stop.
Tanya Brown-Dickerson learned of son Brandon Tate-Brown's death from a radio report. He was killed in December traffic stop.Read more

TANYA BROWN-Dickerson sat listening to her car radio in a Home Depot parking lot when she heard something that sent chills through her.

A 26-year-old black man driving a white Dodge Charger had been shot by police during a stop. It took just a few calls to friends and family to confirm that it was her son, Brandon Tate-Brown.

That was two months ago. She's since learned little else about her son's death. Yesterday, Brown learned from the Daily News that the police officers involved in the shooting were back on the streets after an internal investigation found that they did not violate departmental policies. The case is still being reviewed by the District Attorney's Office.

Another wondrous example of community-building by the Philadelphia Police Department. PPD: Breaking hearts and minds one bungled interaction at a time.

And this after Brown-Dickerson and a church full of residents and activists raised holy hell at a meeting last week about police protecting cops rather than civilians by refusing to release information about police-related shootings like Tate-Brown's.

They wanted the names of the officers.

They wanted to see the surveillance video.

They wanted answers.

At the meeting, Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel apologized to Brown-Dickerson for the way she discovered her son's death, calling it "unacceptable."

"We do believe the name [of the officer involved] should come out, but the question is, 'How can we best do that?' " Bethel said.

He said Commissioner Charles Ramsey assigned him and others in the department to come up with a "protocol" to best disseminate information in these cases.

Information like . . . the officers involved in the controversial shooting being put back out on the streets weeks ago?

It was only yesterday, after the Daily News started asking questions about the status of the case, that Ramsey called Brown-Dickerson to tell her the cops were back on patrol.

Brown-Dickerson said the commissioner apologized, which is admirable. But how many apologies is this mother going to get before the cops start giving her basic information?

It's another example of the PPD being its own worst enemy - even when it just might be justified here.

Police say that on Dec. 15, Brandon Tate-Brown reached for a gun in his car during a struggle with officers, who had stopped him for a traffic violation on Frankford Avenue near Magee. It was later learned that he had a criminal record. His family says they believe that he was unjustly stopped by racist cops and that the gun was planted.

Scoff all you want, but this is exactly what happens when people are left in the dark, when they're forced to read between the lines of a process shrouded in unnecessary mystery. Do that and people will inevitably fill the void, usually with doubts and suspicions.

I understand it's not possible to give the public all the information it wants during ongoing investigations. No matter how this case concludes, people won't be satisfied. Someone is dead, people are angry.

But increasingly police seem to use "ongoing investigation" as a convenient shield from giving the public any information at all. For all the talk of sacred process and procedure, the PPD makes these rules and it can certainly change them. A lot faster than anyone's let on. (Just showing some common decency toward a mother who lost her son would be a start.)

Ramsey said he expects to have a plan in place in the next week or so that will specifically outline how the department should communicate with families in these situations. "There's really no excuse here," he said. No, there's not.

This isn't rocket science. Lack of transparency breeds mistrust. Simple as that.

"There's just no justification for keeping me in the dark," Brown-Dickerson said. "There's no justification for not telling me who killed my son and now for not telling me that the cops who were responsible were put back on the streets weeks ago."

She's right.

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel