The debate is on in Salinas over a depressing issue. Should the Police Department be required to identify police officers who shoot people? The issue grows larger and the debate grows louder with each “officer-involved shooting,” a first-rate euphemism if there ever was one.
Now that there have been four fatal shootings by Salinas police this year, the debate is likely to continue at least until the community has gone a particularly long time without such a shooting. A year or more might do it.
Unfortunately, the Police Department has added heat to the debate without illumination with its latest contribution, a list of emails, police reports and photos of graffiti, each seeking to indicate that the officers involved in the shootings of 2014 would be in additional danger if their names were made public.
The 200-page compilation was provided late last week to KSBW-TV and other media outlets in response to a public request for the names. It attempts to relieve the department from state disclosure requirements by demonstrating that the officers involved have been threatened and are in particular danger. Instead, the compilation merely documents the emotional instability of some people and the depth of anger that much of the community felt over some of the shootings.
The compilation is an additional example of the Police Department handicapping itself in its effort to win over the community. In the most recent shooting on July 10, authorities declined to release any substantive information on the circumstances on the day of the incident and then provided only the barest outline, which included the news that victim Frank Alvarado had been armed only with a cell phone.
I don’t mean to dismiss the Police Department’s concerns about identifying the officers. Being involved in a fatal shooting is terribly traumatic and publicity about officers’ roles certainly could make them feel as though targets had been painted on their uniform. But there is nothing about Salinas that should exempt the department from following the rules followed in most other cities, where such information is routinely made public for good reason.
Common sense tells us that a law enforcement agency should not be the sole judge of its performance. To an increasing degree, police departments are highly insular, paramilitary organizations that operate under the law but also under their own codes of conduct. They have created an us-them world in which almost anyone who isn’t a cop is a suspect and no one from the outside has any right to judge them. It is an understandable reaction to working in such trying circumstances, but that does not make it right or healthy for anyone. Respect for law enforcement agencies remains high but a growing portion of the citizenry is wary of the perception of police departments as occupying armies. If only the police are deemed worthy of judging the police, it does not take much imagination to envision a society in which only the police are deemed worthy of judging everyone else.
Following officer-involved shootings, many police departments hold off for several days to provide time for the officers to receive counseling and get some stress-relieving rest before additional public scrutiny descends on them. If is common for officers to take extended vacations or leaves of absences while tensions on the street work themselves out. But it remains a matter of public policy in most jurisdictions to let the public in on the assessment of police shootings.
As it stands in Salinas, the public would have no way of knowing if the same officer or officers were involved in two or three or even four of the fatal shootings this year. Had any of the officers been involved in shootings in previous years or in other jurisdictions? Had any been sued for alleged brutality? The shooting victims this year have all been Latinos. Were the officers Latinos? Gringos? Their identities matter to the community and should be shared.
More than a decade ago, while I was assigned to the police beat at the Fresno Bee, a team of narcotics officers attempted to buy drugs at an apartment. The plan was to buy meth or coke and then force the door open and arrest everyone inside. Something went terribly wrong. A veteran narcotics officer thought he saw someone inside pull a gun so he opened fire. A nine-year-old boy inside the apartment was killed. A thorough search of the area turned up no weapons other than those the officers carried.
Under department policy, the officer’s identity was to be withheld for a week or so to give him time to recover from the trauma. While working on the story, I discovered his name.It turned out that the same officer had fatally shot another youngster under very similar circumstances a couple of years earlier. A civil trial over that shooting was playing out at the county courthouse the very day of the new shooting.
The question confronting the newspaper was whether to add to the officer’s stress by publishing his name, whether to take the chance of making him a target in the eyes of the boy’s grieving family, or whether to share the information with the public.
It wasn’t a difficult decision. We went with the name.
As far as I know, the officer never shot anyone else.