Police vs. public scrutiny
Kennedy Garcia, 23, was one of a group of suspected graffiti vandals in the process of being arrested and handcuffed by police on Oct. 12 when he reportedly took off running. The police called for backup, and two officers in the South L.A. neighborhood spotted him trying to crawl under an SUV. They dragged him out by the ankles and, although he was reportedly lying on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind his back, saw something metallic that they mistook for a gun. Both opened fire, and Kennedy was critically wounded after being shot in the back. He was not armed.
This is now public information, no thanks to the Los Angeles Police Department. At the time, the LAPD put out a news release making the incident sound like a routine officer-involved shooting -- no mention was made of the handcuffs, nor that Kennedy was lying prone. After The Times questioned police brass, they acknowledged the additional details and said they were withheld to avoid tainting witness testimony. That’s plausible, but we can think of a few other reasons they might have wanted to keep the affair out of the headlines.
If the Garcia incident were the rare instance of police withholding details about the use of force, it would be one thing. In fact, however, police officers in Los Angeles and across California are performing their duties with far less public scrutiny than in the past.
Not many years back, officer-involved shootings were extensively detailed in news releases. Police also routinely disclosed the names of officers involved, and disciplinary proceedings against officers were open to the media. Much has changed since then. Police unions have taken the position that officers’ names should be redacted from reports, especially those involving high-profile use-of-force incidents. Newspapers such as The Times have had to go to court to obtain names, including those of the officers involved in last year’s notorious pepper-spraying incident at UC Davis. Disciplinary hearings are usually closed, and the public is kept in the dark about questionable cases.
Public scrutiny is crucial when it comes to police violence. The infamous “code of silence” among officers that flourished in an atmosphere of secrecy only undermined confidence in police, especially in Los Angeles. Yes, there are sometimes justifications for withholding details to preserve the integrity of an investigation, but the balance between protecting the public via openness and protecting the police via privacy is shifting too far in the wrong direction.