Transparency? Hyattsville refuses to talk tasers with Route 1 Reporter

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Michael Theis/Route 1 Reporter

Hyattsville Chief of Police Amal Awad speaks during an October 2019 community meeting to discuss the fatal police shooting of Leonard Shand.

Last year, Leonard Shand was killed in a hail of gunfire by police in Hyattsville after a 30-minute walking standoff. That day, before the shooting, police tried unsuccessfully to tase Shand three times. That aspect of the events leading up to Shand’s death led Route 1 Reporter to file a Public Information Act request with city officials seeking documents quantifying and detailing all taser misfires between January 2010 and December 2018. Earlier this week, after paying $480 in fees (thank you subscribers), Hyattsville officials turned over dozens of pages of use-of-force reports and technical reports filed by city police officers. 

Now, Hyattsville officials say they decline to speak with Route 1 Reporter about the contents of those documents. That should be troubling for government transparency advocates and police reform activists looking for the city to make good on its “commitment to transparency”. 

Already, Hyattsville city officials have been selective with their disclosures about the incident in a cynical attempt to manage public relations. In addition to showing body-cam video to City Council members – a move not considered controversial because of their oversight roles in city government – city officials also showed footage to Prince George’s County NAACP President Bob Ross in the hope that Ross would essentially endorse the police response on the day of Shand’s death. For about a day, it worked, as Ross’ comments describing the shooting as justified were picked up by WTOP before activist pressure forced Ross to try – emphasis on try– to retract his comments.

Above: The original headline of WTOP’s coverage of Prince George’s County NAACP President Bob Ross’ thoughts on the killing of Leonard Shand.
Above: The headline on WTOP after Ross pushed for a retraction of his comments.

Hyattsville city officials, after first saying they are committed to transparency, have also declined to share video footage from the incident with police and elected officials in neighboring Mount Rainier, which had one officer at the scene. This, despite the fact that Mount Rainier police provided their body camera footage to Hyattsville officials after the shooting. 

Hyattsville has also declined to provide documents to lawyers representing Shand’s family that at least one other jurisdiction provided upon request. Identical Public Information Act requests filed with Hyattsville and Mount Rainier seeking police records related to the shooting received differing responses. Mount Rainier provided the documents to the attorneys, which include use-of-force records and the body-camera video from its officers on the scene. Hyattsville declined to provide those same documents to the attorneys, saying the case was still under investigation. 

That Hyattsville refuses to speak with me about the documents I requested is puzzling. For instance, by requesting records from 2010 through 2018, I constructed my records request specifically to exclude documents that might be related to Shand’s death. Further, the documents contain an abundance of technical details that are best contextualized by expert sources and the agencies holding the records. As a journalist, it is incumbent upon me to seek comment from Hyattsville about its own records as I pursue this story. From the perspective of a city – or really any entity that must deal public relations regularly – it quite frankly is baffling that the city would refuse an opportunity to try to frame this information in a reasonable way. 

As someone who practices communication, this seems unwise. Route 1 Reporter is willing to limit the scope of its questions if it will get Hyattsville officials to go on the record. For instance, I suspect Hyattsville officials are reluctant to comment in detail about specific incident narratives contained in the use-of-force documents I’ve obtained. But there are abundant opportunities to talk generally with city police officials about how they are generally trained to use their tasers, and what happens when a taser fails to work as designed, and their overall satisfaction or experience with the “less-lethal” devices. But if Hyattsville officials think that by stonewalling the media they can prevent critically-important stories from being written, they are mistaken. 

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