Something’s wrong here in Ulster County. On April 15 a man was shot by a sheriff’s deputy after he allegedly stole a car and led a chase through three towns. After ten days, the name of the guy who was shot was released, but we still have not been officially told the name of the deputy. That information has been withheld by the sheriff’s department and by both Ulster County’s district attorney, who has recused himself and his office from the case, and by the Orange County district attorney, who now has it.
The deputy’s father told the Times Herald-Record in the June 2 paper that his son, deputy David Hughes, was the shooter. According to the paper, “he felt Rifenburg’s [20-year-old Brandon Rifenburg, the guy who got shot] parents had a right to know who shot their son and didn’t think it was fair that the name was being withheld.”
Ulster County sheriff Paul Van Blarcum, who as of press time still hadn’t disclosed Hughes’ name, told that paper that David Hughes was still on regular patrol duties. We don’t know whether Hughes was suspended or kept from regular duties for any period of time while the incident was being investigated.
Police Chief Magazine quotes a 48-Hour Release Policy for the names of all parties involved in a shooting. “It will further benefit the law enforcement agency to send personalized copies of this release to stakeholders in the community to avoid dissemination of misinformation and to provide the community the names and phone numbers of contact persons for questions or concerns.”
That makes sense to us. Any time a peace officer draws his gun (or taser, for that matter) is a serious business, a potential life-or-death matter. The public needs to have complete confidence in the training and judgment of its law-enforcement professionals. And it is more likely to have that confidence if it knows the full story of what’s going on. Otherwise, the public’s suspicion of those we need most to trust is elevated and the working fabric of our society crumbles.
Procedures for releasing information in such situations are well documented.
On May 29, the California Supreme Court ruled, according to the Los Angeles Times, “Police agencies [in that state] must reveal the names of officers involved in on-duty shootings unless there is specific evidence that disclosure would pose a safety threat…” justice Joyce L. Kennard, writing for a 6-1 majority, said “Vague safety concerns that apply to all officers involved in shootings are insufficient to tip the balance against disclosure of officer names.”
Policies in San Francisco say “Officers shall not return to regular assignment for a minimum of ten calendar days.” Wikipedia, speaking generally of law enforcement policy, “a police officer who shoots a person while on duty will be given a suspension with pay during the investigation, not to punish, but to enable the department to carry out its investigation.”
In saying that it was not his job to disclose names, district attorney Holley Carnright, a usually thoughtful public official, may have been trying to strike a balance between the deputy’s rights, his ability to continue in his job, and the interests of the public. The Times Herald-Record quoted Carnright as asking in an appearance on Kingston Community Radio why the disclosure of the deputy’s name was necessary. “What kind of little morbid interest is that to need to know his name?” he is reported to have asked.
That attitude sounds unduly defensive to us. As was inevitable, the non-disclosure ended up fostering greater public suspicion. Right or wrong, the way this situation has been handled implies that judgments have been made in-house on the case, without process.
Carnright’s policy is wrong, and presents an appearance that there may be a cover up.
Our Freedom of Information laws are flouted repeatedly by governments on all levels. Executive sessions are misused. Quorums are convened without proper public notice. Documents are misplaced. The laws protecting us from this kind of abuse have no teeth.
When it comes to a police officer shooting a citizen, it is even more important that, exempting unusual extenuating circumstances, the names and details are routinely aired soon after the incident.