Nationally, the increase in the number of videotaped police shootings has caused the courts and many law enforcement agencies to become more transparent about their procedures and about the incidents leading to fatal encounters.
In Monterey County, the opposite seems to be occurring. The best example came this week after Salinas police shot and killed a knife-wielding teenager after efforts to subdue him failed. You likely have heard little about it. Because little information has been made public, the news coverage has been slight.
It happened around 1:30 a.m. Wednesday in the 600 block of Terrace Street in Salinas. Fourteen officers were involved and seven have been placed on routine administrative leave pending internal investigation into the event. Why so many? Who knows? We likely will never know.
The Police Department said the boy, rumored to be 16, had been wielding a knife, that officers had arranged for fire fighters to spray him with a fire hose and then shot him with rubber bullets and a stun gun. After he entered a residence, he was confronted by two officers and was shot when he turned toward them, according to Deputy District Attorney Ed Hazel of the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office.
Beyond that, authorities aren’t saying much, and are not even identifying the youth. Early on he was reported to be a teenage boy but even his age was withheld. Hazel told the Monterey Herald that his office was still deciding whether to publicly identify him because of his age. Hazel said at that time that the name would not be released this week.
UPDATE: Friday afternoon, the DA’s Office released the boy’s name as Marlon Joel Rodas-Sanchez. Witnesses told TV station KION that the youth had been renting a room in the area
At the Salinas Police Department, Chief Adele Frias said there would be no comment.
So what are we left with is that brief description of the incident from Hazel. It’s in the paragraphs above. That’s about it.
Under the previous Salinas police administration, a political decision was made to have the District Attorney’s Office take the lead on investigating police shooting cases, making it Police Department policy not to make any comment on the incident or the process. No matter what questions arose. No matter whether the officers’ actions were being misconstrued or mischaracterized. No comment.
When Hazel was asked for more information this week, he said he couldn’t provide it because he didn’t want to interfere with the Police Department’s criminal investigation. Not any investigation into the shooting but into the actions of the boy. Police Department refers questions to DA. DA says can’t comment for fear of interfering with the police.
Contrast this with what has happened elsewhere.
In Ohio last year, when police fatally shot a 13-year-old boy with a BB gun and a 12-year-old boy with an airsoft gun, the names of the boys were made public within days. (In fairness to local authorities, it appears from the news coverage that the names were released by Ohio authorities but the information might have come from the families.)
In Aptos in November, a sheriff’s deputies shot and killed 15-year-old Luke Smith, who was high on LSD when he stabbed some of his family members. Within days, authorities there released police video of the incident, which showed officers making repeated attempts to have the boy drop the knife.
When can we expect to see body cam video from Wednesday’s shooting? Probably never unless a news organization goes to court to try to force the issue. Protocols haven’t been established on when videos will be made public in Monterey County, or at least as far as we know.
Salinas police and the District Attorney’s Office have succeeded in limiting any immediate fallout from this boy’s death but it comes at a cost of maintaining trust in the community. Helping to keep things quiet is the reality of media shrinkage, with local news crews generally too small and overworked to knock on doors in order to find out what witnesses saw.
I have no reason to suspect the police did anything inappropriate, though every case like this should raise questions about the general police approach to erratic behavior and should prompt comparisons to how such situations are handled in other countries. I am not pushing for additional information because I think it will make the police look bad. I want to see more information to see if there are any lessons to be learned and I don’t want the police to be the sole judge of that.
Back to the identification. Hazel said Thursday that he has not released the name because he is researching the law to see if it is permissible. He could not cite a statute, case or anything else sanctioning hiding the name of someone shot by police, juvenile or adult. State public records law makes it clear that information should be released absent statutory authority or a compelling reason to keep it private. The law does shield the name of juvenile offenders in most cases but those rules have not been construed to apply to the deceased. (Despite official interest in protecting the youth’s name and reputation, do not be surprise if his criminal record, if any, leaks out.)
Hazel correctly noted that the law also allows information to be kept private if its release would jeopardize a criminal investigation. In this case, I suspect that release of the name might lead an additional reporter or two to knock on a door but it is difficult to imagine how any investigation would be compromised.
In cases like this, authorities often adopt the view that information that can be withheld should or must be withheld. The result, I’m afraid, is suspicion that shades opinions of law enforcement even when law enforcement has acted entirely appropriately.
What happens next is this. The District Attorney’s Office some months from now — or longer — will announce that no criminal charges are being filed against any of the officers involved but it will reject any request for reports from the investigation on grounds that state law allows them to be kept secret. Allows. Not requires.
The Police Department will conduct an internal investigation and decide whether any of its rules were broken. We’ll never hear the results. The details of what happened in the 600 block of Terrace Street will never become public unless the family files and pursues a lawsuit. The authorities are asking us to trust them to handle such situations properly and then to fully investigate. In fact, we do trust them for the most part but the trust fades when they won’t treat us like adults.
In many parts of the country, authorities have become more transparent, and that’s a good thing. In the short term, the release of more information rather than less can cause a temporary hardening of attitudes, but in the long term the public will be comforted knowing that the truth is not being hidden.
Fourteen officers were involved in an incident that resulted in the death of a 16 year old boy and the community doesn’t know much more than that. That’s transparency, Monterey County style.