Police rush to shoot, but ask us to withhold judgment
A column about the death of Huntington Beach teenager
Late last month, Huntington Beach police officers unloaded 18 bullets into 19-year-old Ashley MacDonald in a city park after, they say, she moved toward them with a pocket knife. The shooting has understandably sparked protests and countywide debate over when police officers should be allowed to use deadly force.
I'm infuriated not just by the senseless nature of the killing, but by the arrogance of the police agencies, which refuse to talk frankly about the appropriate use of deadly force. The police department and sheriff's department, which investigates these shootings for HBPD, say we shouldn't second-guess the officers or rush to judgment before the investigation is complete.
But it could take months before all the details are gathered. I contacted HBPD and asked for reports from two previous police shootings, from 2004 and 2001. The department's answer: Even though the investigations are complete, they will release no information other than the skeletal facts, such as the date and time of the incident. Talk about Catch-22: We should shut up about the incident until the investigation is complete, but once it's complete we have no right to see it.
Sorry, but this isn't good enough any more. The public should talk about what happened. Wasn't there any other possible way to defuse that situation than to shoot the girl to death? The park was nearly empty, the teen was clearly distraught, yet we're supposed to believe that the cops couldn't have backed away, exhibited some patience and tried a non-lethal alternative? Had it been one of the officer's daughters, I'm guessing they would have tried a few more things before firing their weapons.
Isn't it time that these increasingly common deadly police shootings get reviewed, not just by the police agencies which give themselves and their officers the benefit of the doubt but by the public at large? Shouldn't we talk about starting an independent review board in Orange County to at least put some outside eyes on this issue?
These official internal investigations only look at whether the police followed proper "procedure" and the district attorney only looks at whether the officers who fired the deadly shots did so with criminal intent. A firearms "expert," who trains police officers, told the Register that officers "did what they are trained to do." That's the problem I have: This is how officers are trained to behave. No one really thinks there was criminal intent in the Huntington Beach shooting. It seems more likely to have been a matter of poor judgment, bad policies, poor training and insufficient oversight. By their nature then, the official investigation will never even touch on the significant issue of proper police policy.
I have written about these shootings, and about the inexplicable recent death of a young woman, Vicki Avila, held in custody at the county jail. I get the same old answers from the same old defenders of the status quo: I shouldn't judge unless I was there on the scene. The only people on the scene were the officers and the dead woman, so that means trusting one version of the events. That's like me saying that my columns are off-limits from criticism unless you were there on my lap when I wrote it.
I've heard the statements by police spokespeople insisting that there was no other way to have handled Ashley MacDonald. But the Register reported that the police were preparing nonlethal alternatives in the parking lot, when, as a department spokesman told the newspaper, "time ran out." Clearly, if the department was readying non-lethal alternatives a gun that fires bean bags, for instance then it was by no means clear that the shooting was the only possible course of action.
Police sources even whined to the Los Angeles Times that, unlike some other departments, Huntington Beach doesn't have the resources to pay for officers to carry stun guns, pepper spray and rubber bullets. I've looked at a HBPD budget in the past and the department is hardly struggling with funds even though no government agency ever has the amount of money that it would like to have. This is a case of misplaced priorities, not of a hard-scrabble department lacking resources.
The problem isn't just in Huntington Beach. Here's a May 20, 2004 news report from the Register regarding an incident in Fountain Valley: "Robert Velarde said his son Jason stood beside the bed and appeared to freeze out of fear when four police officers, their guns drawn, entered the room the night of May 10. 'They told him to drop the scissors. I told him to drop the scissors. He didn't look like he could let them go, so I wrestled to take them away,' said Velarde, a quadriplegic with partial use of his arms. ... 'Then one officer yelled 'knife' and they all fired,' Velarde, 62, said. His son, Jason Velarde, 22, was killed."
There are many stories like this, yet Sheriff Mike Carona wrote in the Register last Sunday that civilian oversight boards of police activity are unnecessary and that this newspaper's Editorial Page rushed to judgment in commenting on the MacDonald shooting. It sounds like this sheriff whose department, by the way, has been plagued by scandal and allegations of poor judgment is the one rushing here. He has already concluded that no more oversight is needed and that police are unfairly "criticized, chastised and persecuted by the public and the media."
Even in egregious police shootings, there rarely is any punishment against officers. One of the worst incidents I remember was in Riverside in 1998. Friends of a young black woman, Tyisha Miller, made a 911 call when she was found unconscious in her car at a gas station in Rubidoux, with a gun in her lap. Police smashed the car window, which caused Miller to move. Police claim she was reaching for her weapon when they shot her to death, using 12 bullets to do so.
A fellow officer, upon arriving at the scene, said that the four officers who shot Miller were standing around "animatedly reenacting the shooting," according to a Los Angeles Times report. "[Officer Rene]Rodriquez said his colleagues were laughing, making 'whooping' sounds, slapping each other on the back and embracing." As relatives cried about the death of their loved one, one officer admitted saying: "This is going to ruin their Kwanzaa." The officers in that awful incident were cleared of wrongdoing and offered settlements from the city for their firing. So much for justice.
To make matters worse, the California Supreme Court ruled last week, 6-1, that "the public may not have access to police discipline records filed during administrative appeals, including the names of officers who have been terminated, unless the officers waive their rights to privacy," according to a Times report.
I think back to the May 2001 fatal shooting by police of 18-year-old Antonio Saldivar in Huntington Beach. Cops claimed that Saldivar fled from police, but even the sheriff's investigation later revealed that the officers were chasing a different suspect, then came upon Saldivar, who then supposedly pulled a toy gun. The HBPD first refused to release the name of the officer, who turned out to be the target of two federal lawsuits for assaulting crime-scene bystanders. But the police don't want to give out uncomfortable details about their officers, and the court says it's OK.
In California, police decide when to use deadly force, and police agencies get to investigate themselves. They release only the information they want to release when the investigation is complete. The agencies can shield information about "bad apple" cops from the public. And those of us who simply want a little more debate and accountability are told that it's unconscionable to second-guess the authorities. I don't mean to be alarmist here, but the Webster's definition of a police state, i.e., a political system characterized "by an arbitrary exercise of power by police," is starting to cut a little too close to the bone.
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