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Under cover

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If I want to accuse someone of something really serious in print, I’d better pin down my sources. Documents are good, as are photos, recordings or e-mails that prove the point. What I cannot do is round up three or four anonymous folks who say, “He’s a crook,” then rush that, willy-nilly, into print.

Likewise, it’s impossible to imagine that Max Brantley would publish unsigned letters naming someone a crook. Responsible journalists just don’t do that. They accept that unsupported, anonymous allegations fall far short of the necessary standard when someone’s reputation is at stake.

But forget reputations. The citizens of Little Rock have just been put on notice that, here, one’s very life can be taken by anonymous city employees, and so long as other city and county employees accept their unsupported version of events, the matter is considered settled.

On Dec. 6, 2006, unidentified Little Rock police detectives, working with an unidentified informant, shot and killed an identified man — DeAndre Glenn. The detectives and the informant said Glenn was shooting at them. Fearing for their lives, they said, the officers fired at Glenn and killed him.

Little Rock police investigated the shooting and found no fault, either on the part of their fellow officers or their informant. The department sent a report to Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley, who recently agreed.

Jegley reasoned that the officers had to make a split-second, life-or-death decision. They did. Glenn died. Case closed.

But this shooting is not that simple. Look at it this way: A Little Rock man was shot to death. The police know who did it, but that information is being kept from the public. Why? Because the shooters, the investigators, and the officials charged with reporting what happened are all public employees, and they have decided that, supposedly for the public’s own safety, this is information it need not know.

For all I know, the situation unfolded exactly as police described. They regularly face situations more dangerous than most of us care to imagine. It is a jungle out there.

Sometimes, however, police get tangled up in that jungle. Things happen that shouldn’t. Those sorts of things happen more frequently when there’s no external oversight — when the police are acting in secret.

Secret police. It’s a term that evokes shudders, summoning, as it does, images of gulags in the old Soviet Union, black gloves on a doorknob in East Germany, dirty-war disappearances in Argentina. It is not a term we like to associate with ourselves.

Yet, like it or not, we Americans — we citizens of Little Rock — employ a large and growing number of secret police. We call them undercover detectives. They, in turn, persuade still more secret operatives to work for them, extending their reach into homes and other places where police often cannot go. We call these arms of the secret police “informants.”

We have blessed this perversion of American police work with the magic word “drugs.” The resulting hysteria has allowed us to accept police policies that we would otherwise find abhorrent.

We’ve seen the same process repeated since 9/11, as still more of the police and judicial restraints that used to distinguish America from other countries have been thrown overboard, one by one, in the name of “homeland security.”

The shots that were fired at DeAndre Glenn ought to wake us up. His death challenges us to question how much unchecked power we want to place in the hands of police who operate in secret.

The word “undercover” describes the atmosphere of certain police work. It also denotes the hazards of public operations that are, by definition, cloaked. When those operations result in injury or death, we should demand an external review.

Maybe every narcotics detective in the Little Rock Police Department is a veritable archangel of restraint and integrity. But we should not count on that. History has shown us that undercover drug units tend to be bedeviled by officers who’ve been willing to plant or steal evidence, threaten or beat up suspects, or otherwise fail to act up to snuff.

To blithely accept the notion that unidentified police acting with unidentified informants can kill citizens in this city whenever officials say, without corroboration, that the killing was justified sets a precedent for disaster.

Who were these officers? Is preserving their anonymity more important than public scrutiny of their shooting?

Nobody wants a police state — or city. Unlike other countries, ours is supposed to operate on a system of checks and balances. Secrecy tips that scale.

In this case, the shooters, the informant, the investigators — everyone but the dead man — was working for the police. There is no other side to the story, no way to check or challenge what happened. The loop is as closed as a coffin.

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