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Police shootings: No uniform standard exists for releasing officers’ names

Supporters of the Yantis family march from Council Elementary School to the Adams County Courthouse in Council on Saturday in protest of the Nov. 1 shooting of Jack Yantis by sheriff’s deputies.
Supporters of the Yantis family march from Council Elementary School to the Adams County Courthouse in Council on Saturday in protest of the Nov. 1 shooting of Jack Yantis by sheriff’s deputies. Idaho Statesman file

It’s been nearly three weeks since Adams County rancher Jack Yantis’ fatal encounter with sheriff’s deputies. The 62-year-old rancher has been mourned and eulogized.

But the public still doesn’t know the names of the two deputies connected to his death — at least not officially.

It’s hard to keep a secret in a small community such as Council, where names have swirled about since Yantis’ Nov. 1 death. The public and media have called for the names to be formally released so many questions can be answered: How much training and experience did these deputies have? Were they involved in any previous incidents at this department — or others? Have they ever been accused of excessive force?

Idaho State Police and the FBI are both conducting separate investigations into the incident. An ISP spokeswoman said it’s up to Sheriff Ryan Zollman to release the names of the deputies, and Zollman has told the Statesman that he has no timeline for disclosing that information.

The 37-year-old sheriff said he’s received death threats, and he’s concerned for the safety of his deputies. At a town hall meeting last week, he told the community that these deputies involved were not rookies. One had five years of experience in law enforcement, the other 15 years, he said.

This situation is not unusual. In fact, it plays out with some regularity across the country.

Following public outcry and protests over the fatal shooting of an unarmed man in Minneapolis last weekend, state investigators with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension on Wednesday released the names of the two officers involved.

The way law enforcement agencies handle this issue doesn’t just vary from state to state, it varies from department to department. Some agencies do not release officers’ names. Ferguson, Mo., Police Chief Tom Jackson’s refusal for almost a week last year to release the name of the officer who killed 18-year-old Michael Brown put a spotlight on the issue; Jackson cited safety concerns.

Officials at a half-dozen Treasure Valley departments largely said they don’t have policies that specifically address this issue. But they do have some general practices they follow.

Not everyone believes that releasing officers’ names within hours or days of a shooting is a good idea. Concerns about officer safety have led to efforts to delay or prohibit the release of names.

SOONER THAN LATER ...

Boise’s last officer-involved shooting was on Oct. 26. Police Chief Bill Bones was in Chicago at a conference when the late-night incident occurred, but the department released the name of Officer Adam Crist the next day.

“We release very, very quickly compared to most agencies,” Bones said.

The incident occurred after a traffic stop in which a passenger — identified by police as Patrick A. Zavala — fled on foot. Police said Zavala was armed and fired his weapon during the encounter with police. Ada County Critical Incident Task Force investigators have not yet released how many times Crist and Zavala fired their guns, nor the exact sequence of events.

Zavala, who spent five days in the hospital for wounds to his thigh and hand, has been charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and resisting and obstructing. No one else was injured in the incident.

The Boise Police Department generally tries to disclose officer names within 24 to 48 hours of a shooting, Bones said. That gives officers time to notify family and friends, and to try to get a night of sleep before the onslaught of public scrutiny.

“We don’t want their mom, dad or kids hearing about it on the news,” Bones said. “It causes an unbelievable amount of stress. It has cost people marriages. We want officers to have that opportunity to talk to their families first.”

Departments are trying to balance transparency with safety, Bones said.

“If it was a gang officer in L.A. [involved in the shooting], and there are serious death threats, you need to protect that officer and his family. We would do the same with any citizen,” Bones said. “If there’s no special safety issue involved, it’s a piece of information, which based on the positions we hold, it’s one of those things that you understand is going to be released to the public.”

Bones said his officers have previously received death threats after a shooting, but nothing like what the Adams County Sheriff’s Office is experiencing.

The Garden City Police Department takes a similar approach to Boise. They try to release names within 24 to 48 hours, Chief Rick Allen said.

“I believe the more information we give the public, the more they believe that we’re being straight-up with them,” Allen said. He said officers’ families have been included in trainings on what occurs in critical incident investigations so they’re aware of the whole process.

Meridian Police command staff decides on a case-by-case basis when to release officer names.

“We weigh the officer’s safety and their family’s safety with the public’s right to know,” Meridian Deputy Chief Tracy Basterrechea said.

In all cases, Basterrechea said, his agency releases a thumbnail of the officer’s background, including age, gender, law enforcement experience and years with the department. That’s usually done within the first 24 to 48 hours, he said.

If Meridian opts not to release the officer’s name in the first few days after an incident, it usually doesn’t come out until after the investigation is complete.

“We always release it once the investigation is complete,” Basterrechea said.

... BUT NOT IN ALL CASES

The name of a Canyon County sheriff’s deputy who shot and killed a man in Middleton last March was released this month after a full investigation — about eight months after the incident happened. The Sheriff’s Office’s policy manual section on officer-involved shootings says:

“It will be the policy of this office to not release the identities of involved officers, absent their consent or as required by law. Moreover, no involved officer shall be subjected to contact from the media and no involved officer shall make any comments to the press unless authorized by the sheriff, chief deputy or a captain.”

Is it fair to quickly identify a shooting victim — but not the shooter?

Canyon County Chief Deputy Marv Dashiell said they treat the release of shooting victims’ names as they would victims in other death investigations, including fatal crashes. He noted that victims’ names would likely be divulged through nonofficial channels if the sheriff did not release them.

Canyon County officials are concerned that releasing officer names would negatively impact investigations and put officers and their families at risk. In most cases, officers are not arrested or charged with a crime, Dashiell said. The names of homicide suspects are released when they are arrested or charged.

Idaho State Police investigators cleared Deputy Chad Bingham of wrongdoing in the death of 31-year-old Brandon Rapp.

Bingham was responding to a domestic violence call at a house in Middleton. Rapp, who was armed, got into a confrontation with the deputy. The encounter happened at night, so much of the video from the deputy’s body camera is dark. But in the audio, Rapp can be heard to say: “It’s a f------ squad car. I’m f------ shooting, b-----.”

Bingham asked Rapp three times to lower his weapon. He told investigators that Rapp did not comply. Bingham shot four rounds; Rapp was struck by three bullets. Bingham performed CPR immediately after Rapp went down but could not revive him, according to ISP Capt. Bill Gardiner.

Nampa Police Department uses its records-release policy as a guideline for releasing officer names, said department spokesman Lt. Joe Ramirez.

He said officer-involved shootings are treated like a criminal investigation, so the department doesn’t release the names of victims or suspects until they’ve charged someone or cleared the case.

“In an officer-involved shooting, especially when someone is killed, this is a homicide investigation, and the officers are considered suspects, and [the] deceased is considered a victim,” Ramirez said. “Sometimes this does not get relayed very well.”

BATTLE OVER WAITING PERIOD

While civil rights groups and media push for more transparency, some police associations and their supporters are seeking longer cooling-off periods and/or withholding of officers’ names unless charges are filed.

The governor of Arizona in March vetoed a bill favored by the Arizona Police Association that would have prevented law enforcement agencies from releasing names of officers involved in serious or fatal shootings for 60 days. After that, only those who were charged or who gave consent would be named.

The American Civil Liberties Union sent Gov. Doug Ducey a letter opposing the shield law, the New York Times reported.

“Police officers have extraordinary authority — to investigate us, detain us, and search or arrest us,” the ACLU wrote in its letter. “When agencies and officers use these powers, the public must be informed. These powers are much more likely to be abused when their use is concealed from the community.”

In Texas, the Dallas Police Association this year sought an indefinite waiting period instead of its practice of releasing an officer’s name the same day as a shooting, or the next day, according to the Dallas Morning News. Chief David Brown agreed to a 48-hour waiting period, but he also retained the authority to release a name immediately if he feels it’s appropriate.

Adam “Ademo” Miller of the police accountability group Cop Block said releasing officer names is a simple matter of fairness. “Badges don’t grant extra rights,” is one of his mantras. If average citizens can’t shoot people and remain anonymous, why should police officers?

“I don’t want people to be anti-cop, I want them to think,” he told the Statesman in a phone interview from Dayton, Ohio.

Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413, @KatyMoeller

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