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March 28, 2014
Editorial: Fatal interactions with police veiled in secrecy


(March 28 - By the Editorial Board)

It has been more than two months since Lodi police officers shot to death Gulf War vet Parminder Singh Shergill, but still his family has received few answers from the police about what happened that Saturday morning.

Because the Lodi authorities are stonewalling the public and the press, it could be months more - as much as a year after the shooting - before family members can find out something as simple as how many times police officers shot the U.S. Army veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Police and city officials merely report that the officers had to shoot because Shergill was threatening them with a knife.

Incidents in which police shoot and kill someone are traumatic for everyone involved, not least the officers. But that doesn't excuse Lodi and county authorities for withholding information crucial to explaining this disturbing incident to the public.

They have been hiding behind the thin excuse that releasing any information, even the autopsy report or 911 call, would compromise the investigation. The longer they drag their feet, the wilder the speculation will become. It's not healthy for a community to be wary of its public safety officers, and will only make policing harder in the future.

The shooting and secrecy surrounding it bring up a larger and more concerning issue: Law enforcement doesn't do a very good job of owning up to fatal interactions with the public.

There's a growing unease among the some people that police officers shoot too quickly. In the wake of this shooting and others by police, we wondered whether the idea had any merit and turned to the FBI for statistics.

The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting program gathers data every year from law enforcement agencies across the country and crunches the numbers to come up with statistics about murders, rapes, robberies, car thefts and hate crimes, among other offenses, and compares the data to past years. The FBI also gathers annual data of law enforcement officers killed and assaulted while on the job.

What the FBI doesn't collect, however, is data about people shot by police officers on duty, or even any information about police use of force. The California attorney general's office doesn't either, though it does compile an annual list of people who die in police custody in California.

This dearth of information suggests a lack of self-reflection by law-enforcement authorities. Worse, it sends a message to the public is that our deaths are not as important as theirs.