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Exciting news today with Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo’s announcement that Charles Holifield will be charged with murder in connection with the Peninsula’s most notorious unsolved crime, the June 1998 slaying of 13-year-old Christina Williams at Fort Ord.

Holifield has been in prison for nearly two decades for the attempted gunpoint kidnapping of a Marina woman two months after Christina disappeared while walking her dog. He has long been considered the prime suspect in her killing, which has been the subject of intense investigation by local authorities and the FBI. At a news conference Thursday, Flippo said DNA evidence is what finally made the case against Holifield. He would not elaborate, saying it would come out in court.

It appeared several times over the years that an arrest could be imminent, most recently in 2010. That year, a federal grand jury was convened to reexamine the evidence against Holifield. Among those called to testify was former Monterey Herald reporter John DeSantis, who had written a compelling story implicating Holifield in 1999. Among other things, DeSantis spelled out other assaults linked to Holifield and bearing strong resemblance to the Williams case.

Because of his other crimes, Holifield was a suspect early in the Williams investigation but he was essentially cleared by alibi. He and relatives described how he had been at work the day the girl disappeared and they provided investigators with a detailed accounting of his various comings and goings. DeSantis’s article, however, poked a giant hole in the alibi by establishing that Holifield’s movements couldn’t have been as described because President Bill Clinton was on the Peninsula that day and his motorcade would have made some of Holifield’s movements impossible to have occurred as he and associates described them.

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Crime SceneIt 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.

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4:40 p.m. Update: District Attorney’s Office says Alvarado had attempted to set curtains on fire at his family home and would not comply with police direction when at least two officers arrived. When told to put his hands in the air, the DA’s Office said, he instead went at the officers with a cell phone in his hand and was shot. DA’s Office said it did not know whether a Taser or other device had been used.

Update: Monterey campaign manager and public relations specialist Spencer Critchley says in comments below that the no comments from the officials do not reflect a no-comment position. It’s just that they can’t comment. Critchley is the acting public information officer for the Salinas Police Department.

Text of original piece:

If Salinas police had arrested Frank Alvarado early Thursday, they would have been required to provide some details, starting with why he had been arrested. State law mandates the release of some basic information in order to prevent what would amount to secret arrests.

But since Alvarado was killed, state law apparently doesn’t require the Police Department to say much of anything about it. Salinas police and the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office essentially have revealed nothing about what led to the 5 a.m. shooting on the east side of Salinas.

So what we have here amounts to an almost secret killing.

The District Attorney’s Office will now conduct an investigation. It will interview the officers involved and any witnesses. It will look at photos from the scene of the shooting, examine bullet casings, examine Alvarado’s criminal record, wait several weeks for results of toxicology testing, and then make an announcement.

Unless DA investigators determine that the officers acted criminally, all the public is likely to hear about the outcome is that charges will not be filed. Then the Police Department will announce some time later that no department policies had been violated.

Details? The whats and whys of what actually happened? They may never be made public. If the investigations support the officers’ actions, officialdom may find it necessary for the sake of argument to say what Alvarado did to prompt the shooting, but if any contrary evidence exists, we’re not likely to hear about it.

It is easy to understand why the authorities would want to keep the information under wraps. This was the fourth case this year of Salinas police fatally shooting someone, and the most recent previous case prompted considerable protest after a video went viral showing officers shooting a man who may or may not have been threatening them with pruning shears.

The authorities don’t want more protest marches, more angry neighborhood meetings. But there is some reason to suspect that this official silent treatment could backfire. The public, and especially Alvarado’s family, will want answers. The authorities, after formally adopting a no comment posture, could find themselves locked into that posture, no matter how awkward it becomes. Anyone thinking the public reaction would be “oh well, that’s the way it goes” ought to think again.

This is not to suggest the police did anything wrong. Alvarado was a parolee with a history of violence. But the police don’t answer just to themselves or the District Attorney’s Office. They answer to the public. This “no comment” position isn’t acceptable.

Salinas police officials have said they are working to regain the community’s trust. They are going about it entirely the wrong way.

A reporter for the Salinas Californian tweeted this morning that DA Dean Flippo “may” have more to say later today. Go for it, Dean. You’d be doing the community and probably even the Police Department a favor.

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