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Executive Editor of the Sacramento Bee: Transparency needed from law enforcement

By   /   February 16, 2014  /   2 Comments

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“Should law enforcement be more transparent with information regarding officer-involved shootings, such as autopsy reports, incidents of abuse of power and subsequent discipline?”

From the Executive Editor: Transparency needed from law enforcement

Any time a police officer shoots and kills someone, the community rightfully demands answers.

Yet answers still are few in the case of Parminder Singh Shergill, a Gulf War veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Lodi police shot Shergill to death three weeks ago after his mother phoned police to tell them she was worried about Shergill’s state of mind. Police said the 43-year-old charged officers with a knife.

Lodi city and police officials, along with the San Joaquin County Coroner’s Office, all have cited an ongoing internal investigation as the reason the department won’t answer questions from the media or community, or release documents that other law enforcement agencies and states might consider public records – a transcript of the original 911 call, the coroner’s autopsy report and any disciplinary record of the two involved officers.

Police officials have allowed the officers to return to work, even as they continue to hold back information that might explain that decision. Police spokesman Lt. Sierra Brucia told The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert on Wednesday their investigation probably won’t be complete “for at least a year”and to “check back in three to six months.”

Any officer-involved shooting is among the most emotionally charged of community issues. Our questions and document requests are intended to serve this community by helping to reveal the truth. Family members already have retained renowned Sacramento civil rights attorney Mark Merin to represent them, and filed a tort claim Thursday to obtain information. Shergill’s cousin has interviewed several eyewitnesses. Their findings are far different from the little we’ve heard from law enforcement.

Questions posed by Hubert that remain unanswered include: If Shergill had a knife, what kind was it? Does it matter that it is common practice for devout Sikhs to carry a ceremonial kirpan at all times? What exactly did Shergill’s mother say when she called 911? How many shots were fired by the officers? How far away was Shergill when the shots were fired?

Beyond specific questions about this deadly encounter are broader issues facing Californians. How should we in California deal with the reality that law enforcement often is the only agency to turn to when the behavior of mentally ill family or friends become a concern? Too often, such encounters start with a loved one calling 911 for help, and end in tragedy.

And, for those who want stronger accountability and public transparency for the officers involved in shootings, there is work to be done in California. Officials hide behind a catchall category of an “ongoing investigation” and refuse to release documents like autopsy results until they are good and ready. Is it in the public interest for law enforcement to take a year before they respond to the community about an officer-involved shooting?

Let’s take a look at three specific areas where public transparency is at risk:

•  The 911 call. The Bee’s crime reporter, Kim Minugh, said it is difficult to obtain 911 transcripts. Under current law the decision to release 911 calls varies by agency. For instance, neither the Sacramento city police nor county sheriff’s departments will release transcripts. But Rocklin police have done so in high-profile instances, as has the California Highway Patrol.

Across the country, states have different standards. They are presumed public records in states as disparate as Texas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana and Nevada. Rhode Island requires written consent of the person who placed the call. California needs a consistent approach that serves the public.

• Disciplinary records. In California, efforts have failed to pass laws allowing public scrutiny of confirmed incidents of abuse of power – and subsequent discipline – by law enforcement officials.

Tom Newton, executive director of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said, “Law enforcement unions and law enforcement employers collectively are consistent in their opposition to scrutiny of their operations.”

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About the author

Branson Hunter

(This story was posted by Cactus Thorn contributor Branson Hunter)

"The ends do not justify the means." If you use illegal mean to accomplish a legal and even desirable result, the good result does not make the bad means you used justifiable.

2 Comments

  1. Dan OBrien Dan OBrien says:

    The article lost a bit of its punch with the new pictures… I am wondering what part of Barney Fife was not transparent?

    I liked Barney. He never had a loaded weapon. He seemed to always called it the way he saw it. I would have been happy as hell to live in a town patrolled by Barney Fife and his Boss Andy Taylor.

    • The former picture was too sinister looking and it was outdated. The Barney pic is an improvement, but there are likely hundreds of better choices. Barney was missing a few screws. But he didn’t scare people and he did his job.

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