Juan Acuna, holding two guns, was shot and killed by Salinas police and the CHP in July 2013. The officers were cleared in an investigation that lasted 18 months. PHOTO COURTESY OF KSBW-TSalinas officials announced this week that the U.S. Department of Justice is rolling into town to help figure out how the Police Department can eliminate some of the friction between it and the community it serves.
The two-year review is prompted by the series of officer-involved shootings last spring and summer, four fatal shootings of Latino men under circumstances that still have not been fully explained.
Relations between Salinas police and parts of the community have been strained for the past few decades, a period of heavy gang violence that resulted in aggressive policing. The four deaths over a five-month period brought much of that tension to the surface, with loud protesters greeting police at a number of crime scenes.
While it is encouraging to see the city is addressing the overall issue with the help of a team of federal experts, it does seem, however, that one of the most productive steps the city could take is being overlooked. Simply put, the official investigations into the shootings have taken too long. Those involved need to step it up.
The flurry of shootings started last March 29 with the death of Angel Ruiz.
That was followed on May 9 by the death of Osmar Hernandez.
Next was the May 20 death of Carlos Gomez.
Then, finally, on July 10, 2014 came the death of Frank Alvarado.
The official investigations into each case remain incomplete and there has been no indication of when we might expect to hear whether anyone involved will be charged with a crime.
None of the shootings stands out as a clear example of excessive force or overreaction but the lack of information and the amount of time between incident and explanation both add to the distrust that has developed.
In January, officials announced completion of an investigation into another officer-involved shooting. That involved the death of Juan Acuna on July 26, 2013. In other words, that investigation had taken 18 months. It was unusually complicated because Acuna was shot by several officers from two agencies, Salinas police and the California Highway Patrol.
The four cases from 2014 do not appear to be nearly as complicated, however, and no meaningful explanation has been provided for the delay.
By the time any official announcement is made, some of the witnesses will have moved away, along with some relatives of the shooting victims. The shootings were in or around East Salinas, which is a mobile community.
By the time any official announcement is made, many in the community will have forgotten which shooting was which. All the time this is taking may help prevent any significant flare-up of protest, but it will do nothing to rebuild trust. Just the opposite, in fact.
If officials are thinking that time will make any controversy blow over, they could be playing a dangerous game. Community members angered by the shootings already believe that the investigations will not be fair, that there will be cover-ups. Ask them why they think the investigations took so long and they’ll say the officers needed time to get their stories straight.
The fact of it is that there is little likelihood that any of the officers involved acted in any criminal manner. Salinas police are well trained and the department’s intentions are above suspicion. But the official mindset that surrounds such cases and the various procedures intended to protect the rights of officers have created a prolonged information vacuum that promotes speculation and distrust.
It took heavy community pressure before the names of any of the officers involved were released to the public, and even then details of the fatal confrontations have remained sketchy. That was a mistake. Police officials must be careful not to sabotage shooting investigations but they still can and should provide the public with a reasonably clear picture of what seemingly occurred within days.
Often, police departments are much more forthcoming about the circumstances of violent crimes when officers are not involved. Police officers already have special protections built into the law when they come under investigation. If there is a real need to keep the details locked up tighter after officer-involved shootings, that has never been explained to the community.
Much of the time lag could be a result of staffing issues both at the Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office, which reviews the police findings and often performs additional investigation of its own. I’m only speculating here, but perhaps police shooting cases receive a lower priority than other important cases because of the need to quickly identify and arrest violent criminals.
But whatever the reason, police officials here and elsewhere should be reminded that acting in a timely manner, and providing clear information about the process and the conclusions, are proven methods of calming fears and building trust. The clock is ticking.