Bernard Melekian, Pasadena’s police chief and head of the California Police Chiefs Assn., is a model police executive -- honest and forthright, dedicated to building community trust and willing to subject his department and himself to the scrutiny that comes with transparency.
Now his commitment to openness has come under attack.
The challenge grew out of an officer-involved shooting on Feb. 19 in which Leroy Barnes Jr., a 38-year-old African American man, was shot 11 times by two Pasadena police officers. The chief followed the rules of good policing, ordering an internal investigation, turning the results over to the FBI and the district attorney, and engaging a county agency to independently assess the fairness, thoroughness and integrity of the shooting review.
To keep the public informed, he scheduled a news conference for April 2 at which he planned to discuss the case. It was expected that, as he had done in the past, Melekian would disclose which officers were involved in the shooting.
The police union objected and got a temporary restraining order to prevent Melekian from naming the officers. A hearing on a preliminary injunction will take place on April 16.
Why the order was granted in the first place is puzzling. The public’s right to know, the 1st Amendment, and settled law all should have stood in the way of muzzling Melekian. In order to enjoin speech, there has to be a clear and present danger of imminent harm, and nothing of the kind was shown by the police union. True, the union speculated that gang members might seek revenge if they knew who the officers were. But merely conjuring up disaster scenarios is not demonstrating a clear and present danger: The 1st Amendment stands in the way of enjoining speech unless harm is significant, clear, present and palpable.
Police officers should not be exposed to unnecessary jeopardy. But there is no evidence that disclosure of officers’ names or disciplinary history intrinsically endangers them. Melekian had already prudently weighed disclosure against any threat of harm, and the union cited no past incidents in which the revelation of an officer’s name subjected him or her to harm.
A police officer’s job is dangerous, and everyone grieves when an officer is harmed on the job. But there is a big difference between the risk that a police officer will be harmed in the course of arresting a dangerous felon and a vague threat that has not materialized.
We grant the power of life and death to those who carry a badge. With that power comes the obligation to take personal responsibility. Anonymity defeats accountability. Absent a clear and present danger of imminent harm, which the police union has failed to show, Melekian would have been right to disclose the officers’ names. His willingness to hold himself and his department accountable to the general public is admirable. Let’s hope that the court understands how crucial that transparency is and rejects the request for an injunction.
Merrick J. Bobb is executive director of the nonprofit Police Assessment Resource Center and special counsel monitoring the Sheriff’s Department for the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.