When police are involved, details become sketchy
In today’s highly charged atmosphere where police shooting investigations are sliced and diced on social media and in public, one in our area still has some missing pieces. It likely will stay that way until the courts take over.
It’s been more than three months since the shooting death of Danny Washington, 27. Police from six local police departments pursued the vehicle carrying Washington and four other Florida men on a 17-mile chase from Beaver Meadows in northern Carbon County to Franklin Township near Lehighton.
According to police reports, an unnamed officer pulled Washington from the minivan where their struggle continued. Washington and the officer bumped into another unnamed officer, causing the second officer’s gun to discharge, wounding Washington, who died several hours later.
The other four occupants of the vehicle were not involved in the shooting but were charged with 11 counts of receiving stolen property — bank checks. The driver, Mitchell Knight, 27, in addition to facing a half-dozen summary traffic violations, is charged with four counts of reckless endangerment and a count each of fleeing and eluding police, resisting arrest and possession of marijuana.
The state police took charge of the investigation and presented their findings to Carbon County District Attorney Jean Engler, who concluded that the shooting was accidental and that no charges would be brought against the officer.
“It is unfortunate that Mr. Washington lost his life during this encounter, but it is also abundantly clear from both civilian and police eyewitnesses that Mr. Washington’s own conduct in failing to comply and physically struggling with the officers contributed to his being shot and killed,” Engler said in a prepared news release.
Since the death was ruled accidental, Engler said she will not release the officer’s name or the name of the police agency for which the officer works.
Times News editor Marta Gouger has appealed Engler’s ruling to the state Open Records Office. Erik Arneson, the agency’s executive director, has given both Gouger and the DA’s office until March 26 to file information and legal arguments. He expects a ruling by May 15.
In her appeal letter, Gouger believes the name of the officer’s police agency should be disclosed because of the potential for a lawsuit. A verdict on behalf of the victim’s family could involve the expenditure of taxpayers’ funds, she said.
“They are employees of the taxpayers,” Gouger notes. “The public should know whether municipal police are abiding by the rules. The public needs to feel safe and know that their money is being spent wisely.” Gouger is not pressing for release of the officer’s name.
On the other hand, I believe both pieces of information need to be made public, especially during this era when police are under such intense scrutiny and suspicion.
Engler disagrees. She said that her office is treating this just as it would if an ordinary citizen were involved. If at the end of an investigation, John Q. Public is found to have shot someone accidentally and no charges were brought, she would not release his name either.
I don’t buy that argument, because a police officer is held to higher standards. Police and investigatory agencies need to go above and beyond; they need to be transparent without raising suspicions of cover-ups or protecting their own.
The state police also rejected the request for this information, saying that it is not public and its disclosure “would be reasonably likely to result in a substantial and demonstrable risk of physical harm to the personal security of an individual.”
I don’t buy this argument either, because there is no hint of this possibility in this case. Of course, if there were a safety issue for the officer and his or her family, then this changes the dynamics of the situation.
Engler also cites a three-year-old set of best practices guidelines from the state District Attorneys Association, but the guidelines are just that — recommendations. The district attorney can make her or his own judgment about releasing an officer’s name and/or the name of the police agency. Engler also wants to make it “100 percent clear” that the decision is hers alone and did not involve any pressure from local or state police.
The irony is that this information is going to come out regardless of Engler’s or the state police’s positions. There is certain to be a civil suit filed by Washington’s family, and the officer’s name and department most assuredly will become public. The district attorney and state police have little control over the release of information in civil cases.
By Bruce Frassinelli | firstname.lastname@example.org