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Fairfax Police should reveal details of the Masters shooting

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Last November 17th, someone shot and killed a 52-year-old man named David A. Masters. He was sitting behind the wheel of his car on Virginia’s Route 1, just outside the Capital Beltway. The Fairfax County police know what happened, but they’re covering up the details of the investigation and not even revealing the perpetrator’s name.

That’s because the perpetrator is a cop, and Fairfax County prosecutor Raymond Morrogh has decided not to prosecute, because he found that the cop did nothing wrong. From a Washington Post story by Tom Jackman, here’s what the police say happened:

[Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F.] Morrogh said that three officers approached Masters’s Blazer and that Masters began rolling forward, nearly striking an officer. A second officer, on Masters’s left, thought the first officer had been struck but did not fire, Morrogh said.

The second officer told investigators that he then saw Masters reach down, Morrogh said. “The officer believed he was reaching for a weapon and fired twice,” Morrogh said. The first bullet went through the door pillar, into Masters’s left shoulder, through his chest and then pierced vital organs. The second bullet went through the rear passenger window and grazed Masters, Morrogh said.

Masters turned out to be unarmed.

Well, that’s their story. It may even be the true story. The problem is, it’s hard to tell. As Radley Balko of Reason reports, the police aren’t willing to talk about it:

There exists dash-cam video of Masters’ shooting. There are also police interviews of other witnesses, and the police report itself. But the public and the press are as unlikely to see any of those as they are to learn the officer’s name. That’s because the Fairfax County Police Department—along with the neighboring municipal police departments of Arlington and Alexandria—are among the most secretive, least transparent law enforcement agencies in the country.

It’s not as if reporters aren’t trying:

Michael Pope, a reporter who covers Northern Virginia for the Connection Newspapers chain and for the Washington, D.C., NPR affiliate WAMU, filed a series of open records requests with the Faifax Police Department related to the Masters shooting. All were denied. Last month, Pope asked Fairfax County Police Public Information Officer Mary Ann Jennings why her department won’t at least release the incident report on Master’s death, given concerns raised about the shooting. “Let us hear that concern,” Jennings shot back. “We are not hearing it from anybody except the media, except individual reporters.”

That’s an astounding answer. “Except the media?” That’s exactly who you would expect to file most open records requests. When asked why her department won’t even release even the name of the officer who shot Masters, Jennings got more obtuse. “What does the name of an officer give the public in terms of information and disclosure?” Jennings asked in reply, presumably rhetorically. “I’d be curious to know why they want the name of an officer.”

It’s none of Officer Jennings’ business why the media wants to know the name of the officer. The police department is doing the public’s business on the public’s dime. They shouldn’t be allowed to keep secrets from the public, especially when they kill one of us. The question isn’t why the media wants to know, the real question is why are they afraid to tell us?

I can’t speak for the reporter in the story, however, as a courtesy to Officer Jennings, I will be happy to explain why I want her department to reveal the name of the officer: I think she might be a liar. And I think the shooter might be a liar. And I think the shooter might be a violent asshole who has done things like this before. And I think the Fairfax Police department might be covering it up. And I think prosecutor Morrogh might be helping them. Satisfied?

Of course, it’s possible that none of these things are true. This could certainly be an understandable mistake by a police officer who had a split second to make a life-or-death decision. He could simply have misjudged the situation with tragic results. (Although when non-uniformed police surprise a civilian by breaking into his home while he’s asleep, and he shoots one of them, police and prosecutors are suddenly a whole lot less understanding about split-second decisions that turn out to be wrong.) The point is, we have no way of knowing whether our police are corrupt or merely imperfect until the police department opens up and lets us see the evidence.

It’s not like this is the first time this sort of thing has happened. Four years ago, Fairfax County Police shot and killed Dr. Sal Culosi outside his home while they were serving a search warrant for the crime of betting on football with his friends. Like Masters, Culosi was unarmed. The cops didn’t want to talk about that either, until the Culosi family forced them to release their internal report.

My guess is that not more than a dozen people in Fairfax County know the details of the Masters shooting investigation, and these people expect everyone else to just take their word for it. Or maybe it’s worse than that. Maybe they don’t care if we take their word for it. Maybe they want to be able to kill citizens and never have to justify it to anyone.

There’s a name for a small group of government agents who keep their identities secret and kill citizens. It’s called a death squad. To be clear, I don’t for a moment believe that Fairfax County is operating a death squad. But that’s not the sort of thing I want to have to take on faith alone. I’d like to be able to check for myself, and I’d be suspicious if I was prevented from investigating.

Here’s Alexendria Alexandria Police Chief Earl Cook, as reported by Michael Lee Pope:

“I don’t think we have to justify it,” said Alexandria Police Chief Earl Cook in an interview about access to public documents. “A lot of things can be said about transparency, that doesn’t make it effective.”

And here’s County Commonwealth Attorney Randolph Sengel, completely missing the point in response to Pope’s article:

The most offensive theme of this article is the notion that law enforcement agencies decline to release these reports to protect their own, or to conceal corrupt behavior…Believe it or not, the reporter and his colleagues are not the last true guardians of truth and justice, the attainment of which does not hang on unfettered exercise of journalistic zeal. Last time I checked there were multiple safeguards in place to assure the integrity of the criminal justice system. Conscientious and dedicated judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and law enforcement officers work in a system which is as transparent as it needs to be, constrained by reasonable and appropriate limitations which are there for the greater good, not for purposes of playing hide the ball.

I can’t imagine why anyone should care if Sengel is offended. I’m sure he doesn’t doesn’t care if he offends all the people he accuses of crimes. And if he think’s that law enforcement agencies don’t protect their own and conceal corrupt behavior, then he’s not paying attention.

It’s not uncommon for police agencies to be infiltrated or controlled by organized crime. Here in Chicago, various parts of the police department have been connected to the Chicago mob for decades. At least one police officer has been accused of abusing over 200 suspects to get confessions. More recently, officers have been indicted for robbery, kidnapping, home invasion, and murder, and a chief of detectives confessed to operating a jewelry theft ring. At one point, the Cook County Sheriff’s office had to take over law enforcement in the suburb of Cicero (famous for having been Al Capone’s headquarters) after literally half the town’s police force was indicted.

I’m only picking on Chicago because I live here and know the stories off the top of my head, but this sort of thing happens everywhere.  The Rampart scandal in Los Angeles implicated over a dozen officers and cost the city $125 million in settlements. Police departments aren’t ordered to pay out millions in damages and required to operate under court supervision because they were obeying the law. Are we supposed to believe that the kinds of officers who take mob money and commit murder for hire wouldn’t also maybe lie about a shooting?

Reporters may not be “the last true guardians of truth and justice,” but neither are the police and prosecutors. The press is part of the system of multiple safeguards that Sengel is talking about. It’s one thing to say that certain elements of police investigative methodology should be redacted from reports, but this is a homicide of a citizen by a police officer. It deserves an especially close look, by everyone who wants to see what happened.

Finally, Sengel’s statement that the system operates for the greater good is mere supposition. We all want it to operate for the greater good, and many of us hope it operates for the greater good, but we can’t know that it operates for the greater good if folks like Sengel and Cook and Jennings and Morrogh won’t let us take a close look at it ourselves to see how it operates.

Mark Draughn has been blogging since 2002 at Windypundit, where he rants about legal issues, national politics, economics, and culture. Mark was born and raised in Chicago, which is also where he went to school, works, and lives with his wife and three cats.
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10 Responses to “Fairfax Police should reveal details of the Masters shooting”

  1. Wow. My county has a death-like squad. I knew VA was tough. . .. Great piece, btw. And great self-promotion as well.

  2. Thanks, Mirriam. Always good to hear from you. You know, of course, that I’m not really accusing them of being a death squad. But they’re hiding from the sunlight as if they were doing something wrong, and that’s always disconcerting in a law enforcement agency.

  3. I often wonder why the police are exonerated by the phrase “he was reaching for his waistband”. The vast majority of the time I read or hear this phrase it is in the context of someone being shot and killed. The vast majority of the time no weapon is found. In those times a weapon is found in a pocket or tucked in a waistband the perp had tried to get it out and it is found by the body. I personally do not have this “waistband” gene and know of no reason to reach there if I have nothing tucked there. I am further perplexed by the “drop your weapon” if a person has no weapon in his hand but instead a wallet or carkeys etc. Will this phrase “drop your weapon” register in the human mind as dropping what is in your hand. If you have no weapon then you should have no reaction to this phrase but, people still get killed by the police because “he did not obey my commands”. If you do not have a weapon and you are shot by the police because you theoretically “reached for his waistband” or ” did not obey my commands to drop a weapon” and said weapon does not exist, and by default no threat from a non existant weapon exists. The officer cannot reasonably fear death from a non existant weapon (which he could not have seen because it does not exist) ….. should said officer(s) be convicted of murder? I lean toward the yes they should be convicted of murder column. As a private citizen I have to meet certain criteria for the use of deadly force, I have to reasonably believe an individual is going to kill me or cause me great harm to my person. If a person is unarmed and running away from me I cannot use deadly force, I will be convicted of some form of murder…. why are cops different?

  4. JohnM, You raise a good point about someone not understanding the order to “drop the weapon” when they’re actually holding car keys or a cell phone. It’s the kind of misunderstanding that has lead to more than one police shooting of an innocent person.

    For instance, a few years ago, a bunch of plainclothes cops spotted a guy lurking on the front stoop of a house well after midnight. Instead of slipping away at the sight of a car full of cops, he brazenly stared at them in an eerie calm as they approached. Then, right in front of them, he turned and pushed open the front door of the house. Not knowing what he was doing, they drew their weapons and charged after him, eventually shooting him 41 times.

    His name was Amadou Diallo, and he lived in the house, which is why probably he didn’t slip away when he saw the cops. In fact, being from another country, he probably didn’t even recognize them as cops. So when this group of strangers approached him late at night, he naturally tried to regain the safety of his own home. Cops who are not expecting innocence sometimes misinterpret it as brazen and threatening.

    (And cops who are not expecting other cops often make a similar mistake. Off-duty and plainclothes cops get shot by other cops this way.)

    The legality (and morality) of using deadly force depends very much on the details of the circumstances, and I’ve learned over the years that media accounts often leave out crucial information.

    From what we know, I don’t think the cop should be charged with murder. That would imply he had murder in mind. It sounds like he just made a mistake and shot without seeing a weapon. Whether that’s a crime depends on why he did it, and what the court’s mythical “reasonable man” would do in the same situation. We don’t have enough details to know all that. Which is all the more reason for the police department to be more forthcoming with details of the investigation.

  5. I was wondering if legal action will take place in the case of Mr. Masters. Does his ex-wife and stepdaughter(also the executors of his estate) intend to force information through the courts? You state “[t]here exists dash-cam video of Masters’ shooting. There are also police interviews of other witnesses, and the police report itself.” This conflicts with
    “[n]obody other than the firing officer saw him reach down,” Morrogh said. The incident was not captured on the officers’ in-car video cameras or on traffic surveillance cameras, Morrogh said. ” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/27/AR2010012704730.html .

  6. My impression is that Morrogh is saying they looked at all available video as part of the investigation, and none of it was useful. However, they have not made the video available to the public.

    I don’t know what Masters’ survivors are going to do. If they are able to get a lawsuit going, I assume the court will certainly force the police department to turn over all their evidence as part of the discovery process.

  7. There was an incident where an officer nearly shot aman, not knowing he was unarmed, and then had to be restrained from kicking him in the head for his foolish and provocative actions (running away, not showing his right hand).

    I showed the story to an ex-cop friend, and he said “Of course she was freaked – that’s every cop’s nightmare.” He also said that three or four times a year, a police officer shoots a deaf-mute who is reaching into his pocket for his “I AM DEAF” card.

  8. Rich, I’ve heard of cops misinterpreting the behavior of deaf people too. It’s a horrible situation. I mean, if the cop is not in uniform, the deaf person might not even know he’s being challenged by a cop. How do you handle that?

    I have a theory that a lot of these “he was reaching for something” shootings happen not because the victim was reaching for something, but because of how he did the reaching. In particular, I think some people reach for things — their wallet, their registration, their deaf card — without taking their eyes off the cop. To an officer looking out for trouble, that reads like someone keeping their eyes on the target while reaching for a weapon. I don’t have any proof of this, but it would help explain why a cop who’s seen 1000 people reach for their wallet will all of a sudden overreact.

  9. “The incident was not captured on the officers’ in-car video cameras” would leave me to wonder why they would not have released the footage. Logically, it would not fall under any privacy concern argument. Unfortunately, I suspect this matter will be settled confidentially and we will have to wait for the next case.

  10. Ref. Questionable Police Shootings, Why are police weapons aimed at the victims when no threat has been IDed? Why not present weapons at low or medium ready positions? When you point a firearms’ muzzle at someone at close range, you’ve made it a lethal situation and all stress levels go sky high. For civilians aiming a firearm at someone might contstitute “assault”. Survivors of CQB gun fights report all sorts of sensory distortions, including diminished hearing and visual fixation on exaggeratedly large gun muzzles. Under those conditions most signs and signals will be misunderstood! In a lethal situsation you don’t look at the threat’s eyes – you watch their hands! Don’t the cops know this things? Why do police stand where vehicles can run them over? The police are turning confused situations into lethal ones by their own actions. If the police make a mistake, the victim dies. If the victim makes a mistake, the victim dies. Have so many police been out fought that they need to have ‘hair trigger reactions? The police don’t want any criticism – so they release little or no significant information. Their reluctance is normal human nature, their overwhelming control of information is not healthy.

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