Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Transparency needed from law enforcement

Published: Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014 - 6:12 am

JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Should law enforcement be more transparent with information regarding officer-involved shootings, such as autopsy reports, incidents of abuse of power and subsequent discipline? To write a letter, go to sacbee.com/sendletter. Or comment on our Facebook page at facebook.com/sacramentobee.

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.”

Last week, a judge in Hawaii ordered the Honolulu Police Department to release law enforcement disciplinary records to the news website Civil Beat, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The committee reported that although the police union argued it was a matter of officer privacy, a circuit court judge ruled otherwise, saying, “Opening up the government processes to public scrutiny and participation is the only viable and reasonable method of protecting the public’s interest.”

That’s a standard that respects public interest.

Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Montana are among the states that require disclosure. In Montana, according to the Reporters Committee, the state Supreme Court “has made it very clear that ‘internal investigations’ of law enforcement personnel … must be fully disclosed to the public while the investigation is ongoing, as well as when it concludes.”

•  The autopsy report. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, autopsy reports are supposed to be public in California, although certain exemptions allow the report to be withheld under the “investigatory records exemption.”

When released, the autopsy will shed substantial light on this incident. It will show how many bullets hit Shergill, for instance. The notion of withholding it from public view for months or even a year flies in the face of any notion that law enforcement is accountable to the community for its actions.

It’s not reasonable at this point to speculate whether an internal investigation will find the shooting justified. The two officers involved were experienced. They responded to a scene that is becoming all too common in California, where law enforcement ends up coming to the aid of the mentally ill and their families because other services have been cut.

Michael Summers, a former cop with 30 years experience, is the Crisis Intervention Training coordinator for Yolo County. His current mission in life is to provide training for officers who might be ill-prepared to handle a situation involving someone who is mentally ill. Court guidelines to slow things down, develop a rapport and don’t exacerbate the person’s anxiety go “out the window if the guy turns around and runs at the officers with a knife, a weapon, whatever,” Summers said. “Officers don’t have the ability to go freeze frame, let’s figure out what to do here. Sometimes they have less than milliseconds to make a decision.”

Like most of us, Summers does not have inside information about the Lodi shooting but has read about it in the news.

“This thing in Lodi, it’s really tragic. Mentally ill people in crisis and cops, it’s a volatile situation and it can turn in a heartbeat. I feel for the family and I feel for the officers.”

In the aftermath, timely transparency and information are the way to restore trust between the community and law enforcement. It shouldn’t take a year or the threat of a lawsuit to make that happen.


Call Executive Editor Joyce Terhaar, (916) 321-1004. Follow her on Twitter @jterhaar.

Read more articles by Joyce Terhaar



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