It apparently has become standard procedure following fatal shootings by police on the Peninsula: Even before the crime scene tape comes down, the police department involved turns the investigation over to the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office and, just as importantly, refers all questions there as well.
It happened a couple of weeks ago when Sand City police shot and killed a young couple in the Target parking lot. It happened last week when a Monterey police officer shot and killed a vagrant who was brandishing a non-functioning handgun near Custom House Plaza and again this week when Seaside police shot and killed a former mental patient who reportedly shot at them as they responded to a disturbance at a car dealership.
At first blush, it seems logical and appropriate. An outside agency will assure objectivity, right? So the appropriate police chief immediately tells reporters that the investigation has been turned over to prosecutors and that, therefore, there’s nothing else to be said. DA Dean Flippo tells reporters he has several investigators at the scene and when he has information to share, he’ll hold a news conference.
The next day or soon after, the DA holds the promised news briefing, provides the basic details, including the police department’s explanation for why shots were fired, and answers few questions. The sole focus is on why police were dispatched and why they opened fire. Little information is provided about any interaction between the officers and the subject, previous interactions or what information, if any, the officers had as they arrived.
What is often forgotten or ignored at such times is that the District Attorney’s Office is conducting a criminal investigation, not a procedural inquiry. It is focused on determining whether the responding officer or officers, and especially the officer or officers who used a weapon, broke any law.
Such charges are filed very rarely, so there is rarely a trial that would provide a public glimpse into what occurred. If the subject’s family files a wrongful death or civil rights lawsuit, it is likely to be settled out of court, so, again, there is little chance for the facts to be aired in public.
It is not the DA’s responsibility to determine whether the Sand City police followed proper protocol by confronting the young couple in the parking lot or whether it would have been more logical, and safer, to confront them earlier or later, away from bystanders.
It is not the DA’s responsibility to determine why Monterey police had released vagrant Donald Miller from custody an hour or so before he was killed. He had been arrested earlier for trespass and causing a disturbance at the McDonald’s on Del Monte Avenue. It is not the DA’s responsibility to determine if authorities should have taken him to a mental health facility for observation. Failure to do so even if the situation demanded it would not amount to a crime and, therefore, would not be any of the DA’s business. Or, so it seems, the public’s.
It is not the DA’s responsibility to figure out if Seaside police knew or should have known that Michael D. Clark was a mental patient with a record of police confrontations before he died at a Seaside Chrysler dealership.
I am not trying to suggest any officer did anything wrong. Odds are good that all involved acted bravely and appropriately. What I am suggesting is that the system we have created for scrutinizing officer-involved shootings is a failure unless we believe that the awesome power we bestow on law enforcement exempts police departments from honest inspection of their procedures, even their interactions with the mentally ill.
Some months from now, the DA’s Office will announce that no charges will be filed against the officers in Sand City, Seaside or Monterey. KSBW will tell the world that the officers have been “cleared of any wrongdoing.” A depleted press corps won’t get around to asking for reports stemming from the DA’s investigation and even if a request is made, prosecutors will claim investigative privilege.
By then, there will have been at least three internal affairs investigations that will have looked closely at the procedures and whether any protocols were violated. If any problems are noted, they will be dealt with, or not, internally, with no public pronouncements. Even if serious problems are noted, it is unlikely that the information will ever make its way even as far as the appropriate city council.
In other words, it will be left to law enforcement and law enforcement alone to determine if there are better ways to handle such potentially tragic situations.
So what’s the alternative? Simple. Police agencies should be required to provide the public with a reasonably detailed accounting of the events leading up to a fatal encounter and a reasonably detailed accounting of the encounter itself. If the subject was armed, how was he armed? What was the weapon? After the shooting at the car dealership, there was some confusion over whether Clark had fired his weapon. Did he or didn’t he?
In the case of Donald Miller, what is department policy for determining whether someone is released from custody or placed on a mental hold? How did the release of Miller square with that policy?
In Sand City, was there a compelling reason for officers to move in when and where they did?
That is not a question the Sand City Police Department wants to see discussed in public, for two reasons, one legitimate. First, too much information swirling around could complicate a difficult investigation. But, second, there is at least some chance that someone didn’t do exactly the right thing and could be embarrassed if that was made public.
Unfortunately, Salinas police have considerably more experience with such things and, as a result, they have taken considerable heat, some justified, much of it not. At the same time, they have done a relatively good job of providing the public with meaningful accounts of fatal encounters. There have been times when the administration was perhaps too quick to pronounce judgment on the appropriateness of the department’s actions, but the public interest was simultaneously served by a relatively open accounting of what had transpired. It is not the worst model for other departments.
Law enforcement in the 21st century is a remarkably difficult and complex operation and so is calculating the correct formula for how it intersects with the public and serves interests beyond its own. It is obvious, however, that the law enforcement establishment has used the public’s trust to wrap itself in a shell that is making it more and more difficult for the civilian community to exercise even the most basic oversight.
If the police agencies involved choose not to let the public take a look inside, the various city councils should step in. Individual council members may be reluctant for fear of being accused of being anti-law enforcement or fear of attracting litigation. The facts are that good police departments are made stronger by regular exposure to the light and that the personal-injury lawyers hardly need an invitation to become involved.
When law enforcement takes a life, police procedures should become more transparent, not less. The goal of the resulting inquiries should not be to protect those involved from scrutiny or liability but to work toward minimizing the potential for similar results in the future.