We’re in the middle of “Sunshine Week,” the time each year when special attention is given to the government’s responsibility to provide information to the public.
Sunshine Week started Sunday, and on Sunday afternoon the Albuquerque Police Department had another encounter that ended with shots fired and a citizen dead. The new chief held a news conference that evening to talk about the shooting.
During any week, especially Sunshine Week, news conferences are good. They help with the goal of what is now commonly referred to as “government transparency” and what back in the pre-cellphone, manual typewriter days of journalism we used to refer to as “answer my bleeping question!”
APD Chief Gorden Eden explained that APD had been patient with the man, who had been camping out in the foothills, waiting him out for more than four hours while he produced knives and threatened officers, and calling in New Mexico State Police officers when he requested them.
“A decision was made to deploy less-than-lethal (force), which was done,” Eden said. “We know the less-than-lethal was fully deployed and then a shot was fired.”
For the next two full days, the Police Department would not answer any questions about the incident, except to say the camper had died and that use of force involved APD personnel, not State Police.
So, did police shoot the man?
What type of nonlethal force did they deploy? Beanbag? Taser? Flash-bang grenade?
What changed after four or five hours that prompted them to use nonlethal force? What changed to escalate their response from nonlethal to lethal?
As I write this on Wednesday, APD has finally released the names of the two officers involved, but still hasn’t actually acknowledged that one or both of them fired a shot that killed the man.
(One of the officers in Sunday’s foothills shooting was Keith Sandy. He was fired by New Mexico State Police in 2007 in a double-dipping investigation. Hired by APD, he was the detective involved in ramming and shooting at a car outside APD jurisdiction, in Rio Rancho, in January. And he was the detective in the investigation of state District Judge Albert “Pat” Murdoch that resulted in a rape charge, which the district attorney handling the case decided to drop, telling KRQE this week the case was “terrible” and “a mess.”)
Transparency is all the rage today. It’s the kale of public discourse – so trendy and so good for you. Politicians promise during their campaigns that they’ll be transparent. And when they go from politicking to governing, they like to describe their administrations as transparent, regardless of how open they actually are.
Transparency is apparently in the eye of the beholder.
Here’s my definition: Outside of simply following the law on public disclosures, it’s also telling as much as you possibly can, as accurately as you can, as soon as you can. Everything, and in plain English, please. That way we can understand what our government is doing.
Two APD chiefs ago, when Ray Schultz was in charge of the department, he was not exactly on cozy terms with news reporters, but he had a good record of calling a news conference within a day of a fatal police shooting and describing what happened – who got shot, who shot him, how the situation went down.
Case in point: The day after a chaotic nighttime scene in Uptown last March that ended in APD’s 28th officer-involved shooting in three years, Schultz named the deceased and the officers who fired, revealed how many shots had hit the deceased and where he was shot and diagrammed how the chase and shooting went down.
Since Schultz left, the flow of information has slowed to the pace of molasses. Transparency is actually a lot like kale. Maybe you don’t love it, but it’s good for you so you should make it part of your routine.
So if a police officer fires his gun and hits a man, please say that; don’t say “a shot was fired.” If police used a Taser or a flash-bang grenade, please let us know; don’t say “less-than-lethal.” If police fired more than once (as a wonderfully transparent witness who watched the foothills incident play out through binoculars reported), just say so.
If there was a reason, with the sun going down and temperatures dropping, that officers couldn’t continue to surround a guy with mental problems and wait him out until he got tired of yelling at them and went to sleep, just say that too.
Let’s let the sun shine in.