The Lodi Police Department, criticized for months for failing to disclose details about the shooting of a mentally ill Army sergeant, reversed course this week and released just about every bit of information it could.
The department posted on its website pictures of the knife involved, 911 and radio recordings and transcripts, prior contacts with the victim and a narrative of the incident. The details shed new light on the death of Parminder Singh Shergill earlier this year, painting a picture of a schizophrenic man with a history of violence. He was off his medication and brandishing a mean-looking knife at police.
The new information also raises a mystery: Why would police officials sit for months on information that would have gone a long way to soothe the rising angst in the community? Surely no one knows better than a police officer that hiding something only increases suspicion about it.
Lodi police officials initially released very few details about the incident on a Saturday morning in late January. It had begun when Shergill’s family called the police to report him “going crazy” and ended a few blocks from his home when officers shot him 14 times.
Family and friends in Lodi’s Sikh community wondered what happened, filling in the blanks with speculation. They portrayed Shergill as a sick but otherwise harmless 43-year-old veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress.
Police and city authorities should have gotten in front of this incident from the start, recognizing its potential to foment distrust and fear. They didn’t, and the shooting continued to agitate the community and the family, which filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city.
The documents and recordings of the shooting tell a darker tale than the one shared by friends and family. You can hear it in the officer’s voice as he reported observing a “very agitated” Shergill with a sharp, serrated knife in his hand near Peterson Park. The officer asked the dispatcher to tell the victim’s family to barricade their door, clearly fearing Shergill was headed home and might hurt his family.
That assessment wouldn’t have taken a stretch of imagination: Shergill had been the subject of police calls over the years – including twice for reports of assaulting his mother and sister, police said.
Lodi Police Chief Mark Helms reversed course on this case and threw open the doors, amid sustained pressure from The Sacramento Bee and the family’s lawyer, Mark Merin. Bee reporter Cynthia Hubert has pursued the truth, and after she reported last week about a private meeting between the police chief and members of the Sikh community, Helms relented.
Releasing this information is only the first step toward clearing the air and repairing the rift between police and the community.
The investigation continues and will be reviewed by the district attorney. Authorities still have to answer many questions about the choices made by the officers. Helms said he is looking at training officers to deal with the mentally ill. He should do that right away. He also must know that police cannot freeze out the community they are supposed to serve and protect.