I covered one police shooting in Anaheim in 2008. A 20-year-old newlywed stepped outside his house with a wooden rod in his hand after hearing a ruckus nearby. Police had been chasing a robbery suspect, and when the young man came out of his house, they shot him to death. Even Police Chief John Welter, who still leads the department, said the man “was innocent of anything that the officer thought was going on in that neighborhood.” Yet, apparently, nothing has changed since then.
While Anaheim has a greater need than some other cities to re-evaluate its policing policies, problems with police use-of-force problem are endemic throughout the country and, especially, in California, where police union priorities – i.e., what’s best for officers, not the citizenry – have dominated policy decisions for decades.
Recent news reports show a significant increase in police-involved shootings in many areas of California. Police shootings account for one of every 10 shooting deaths in Los Angeles County, according to a Los Angeles Times report. Videotapes of the encounters often show that the official version of the story is at odds with what really happened. No wonder police agencies spend so much time confiscating video cameras from bystanders, something that should chill every freedom-loving American, whether on the political Left or Right.
The California Supreme Court’s Copley Press v. San Diego decision in 2006 allows allegations of police misconduct to remain shrouded in secrecy. The public can access complaints against doctors, lawyers and other professionals but, in California, misbehavior by public employees who have the legal right to use deadly force often is off-limits to scrutiny. Because of an exemption in the public-records act, police agencies need not release most details of their reports of officer-involved shootings.
Furthermore, the Peace Officers Procedural Bill of Rights in California’s Government Code gives accused officers such strong protections that officers can rarely be disciplined or fired. The “code of silence” is alive and well in police agencies.
Most police department citizen-review panels are toothless. We should never condone violent protests, but it’s not hard to understand the recent frustration in central Anaheim. What if it were your child or your neighbor’s child?