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Candor and law collide

NINE APOLOGIES DO NOT ERASE the effects of 120 bullets. Everyone in Compton agrees about that, as do the nine sheriff’s deputies who apologized for their role in a controversial shootout. Yet now that eight of those deputies are appealing their punishment in the incident, some in Compton are questioning the authenticity of their regret.

But there is a difference between moral responsibility and legal accountability. It is not inconsistent to express remorse for your actions, as the deputies did, and assert your right to due process, as they are doing.

No one excuses the police overreaction in the early morning hours of May 9 in the Butler Avenue neighborhood of Compton. Called to the scene by reports of gunfire, deputies converged on a white SUV, which then led them on a chase around the block. When the driver backed toward several officers, they opened fire, and eventually 10 deputies pumped out 120 bullets. Some found their way into a kitchen cupboard 100 yards away; one pierced a hat hanging in a distant closet. Thankfully, no one died, although the suspect and a deputy were injured.

The incident could easily have led to further distrust -- or worse -- between the police and the community. But in the aftermath of the shooting, the police were refreshingly candid and constructive. Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca called the gunfire excessive, pledged a full investigation into the incident and made an exceptional effort to reach out to the community. And through their lawyer, nine of the 10 deputies involved in the shooting offered an “unqualified and sincere apology” to residents of the neighborhood.

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All that happened within a week after the shooting. In the three months since, the department’s investigation has run its course, and in June, Baca announced new tactical and training policies and disciplined 13 officers. Eleven of them have appealed, including eight who apologized four days after the shooting. (The ninth has decided not to appeal.)

One of the leading critics of the shooting, a local pastor, has said their appeal “means they didn’t really mean what they said.” But it’s not as if these deputies are asserting their innocence -- they are merely questioning their punishment. And doubting someone’s sincerity is the kind of unanswerable argument that does not lead to productive debate.

Thus far, the shooting in Compton has been notable for what it has not provoked: defensiveness by the police, grandstanding by local politicians, cynicism from the community. Part of the reason is that it was not fatal, nor is there any meaningful dispute over what happened. But part of the reason is surely the apology offered so soon after the shooting occurred.

Apologies in incidents such as this are rare, as much for cultural as legal reasons, and probably will continue to be. Yet if police officers can learn to be more honest about their failures -- and members of the community can show that there is no penalty for candor -- then both will benefit.

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