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Editorial: The State Police needs to open up

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As of Thursday afternoon, four days after a 16-year-old was shot and killed by police in Española, the investigating agency still was not willing to specifically say what type of weapon the victim is alleged to have been carrying.

That seems to us an unconscionable delay in providing a crucial detail about an incident that understandably has created a good deal of grief and controversy in the community, and for the teen’s family and friends. The result has been rumors, claims and counterclaims with no solid facts to answer questions that have arisen in the death Sunday morning of Victor Villalpando.

A memorial was started earlier this week in the area where 16-year-old Victor Villalpando was shot and killed by Española police on Sunday morning. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A memorial was started earlier this week in the area where 16-year-old Victor Villalpando was shot and killed by Española police on Sunday morning. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

By midweek, State Police, the agency investigating the youth’s shooting by Española Police Officer Jeremy Apodaca, would only say that Villalpando produced a “weapon” during the confrontation with the officer, but would not say what it was.

Española Police Chief Eric Garcia said on Sunday that the teen had a gun that he pointed at police. On Wednesday, an Española Police detective said a surveillance camera recording the event showed the youth with a stick, gun and knife.

That may be the case. But why the delay by State Police, brought to handle the investigation of a shooting by another police agency, in presentation of basic facts? Was Villalpando indeed holding a gun? Friends and family suggest that, if anything, he might have been carrying a pocket knife or a four-foot “fighting stick” that he used in performing. They say they can’t imagine him having a gun.

That doesn’t mean he didn’t have one. People do a lot of things that we never would have imagined. By producing information about the “weapon” found at the scene – a detail that shouldn’t be open to much interpretation – State Police could straighten out the confusion and provide information on a matter of much public concern.

As far as we know, it’s not as if any other suspects are being sought for questioning. As for witnesses, one is dead and the others, members of the local police force, hadn’t been questioned as of Wednesday. The State Police won’t release any information until that questioning is completed.

Apparently, delayed interviews are standard practice with New Mexico police. They give officers involved in shootings some days to pull themselves together. That’s nice. It’s also a luxury that we can’t imagine being given to any other person involved in a fatal shooting. “Oh, you say you found your wife shot dead in your home, sir? OK, we’ll ask you more about it next week.”

Doesn’t happen.

And it doesn’t happen partly because police want to know as soon as possible if they need to put someone under arrest, a situation that doesn’t necessarily apply in an officer-involved shooting. But it also doesn’t happen because you don’t want people involved in a death to have time to put their heads together and to get their stories straight.

And that potentially does apply in this case.

In officer-involved shootings, we think investigators should question witnesses and the shooter(s) as soon as reasonably feasible, and make details of the incident public as soon as they are clear.

Otherwise, it’s too easy for rumors to spread and suspicions to grow, whatever really happened. The public needs to be able to trust our protectors, and anything that smacks of kid-gloves treatment or holding back information erodes that trust.

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