This is the worst kind of settlement.
Don't get us wrong, we understand the motivations behind it — the need for a city to reduce its liability exposure and protect public money, and the need for a family to move forward after the death of a loved one while making sure they're not walking away from six years of litigation with nothing.
The problem with the city of Fortuna's agreement to pay $900,000 to settle a wrongful death case brought by the family of Jacob Newmaker — after he was shot dead on O Street in 2012 following a violent confrontation with officers — is that it leaves too many questions unanswered. And these are important questions, like whether the county's multi-agency team led witnesses toward a desired outcome and whether the officers involved spoke honestly about the incident that took the life of a 26 year old.
Most troubling are questions about the county's Critical Incident Response Team, which is designed to act as a multi-agency check on local law enforcement in deadly force cases. In Newmaker's case, the appellate court raised questions about whether then District Attorney Chief Investigator Mike Hislop "suggested" a version of events to officers in the case that would be more palatable and better align with evidence collected by investigators. And reading through the transcript excerpts included with the court's ruling, it certainly appears he might have.
That — coupled with the fact that then Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos' five-page letter clearing the involved officers of any criminal wrongdoing notes an autopsy found Newmaker had high levels of methamphetamine in his system but neglects to mention that the same autopsy found the two bullets that killed him entered at a trajectory inconsistent with both the story officers first relayed to investigators and the one suggested to them by Hislop — is beyond troubling. To some it will no doubt reinforce the idea that these kinds of shooting investigations are "rubber stamp" affairs designed to clear the involved officers, as Dale Galipo, the attorney for Newmaker's family, alleges.
The broader secondary tragedy of this settlement — beyond the sobering fact that it stems from a young man in the midst of a mental health crisis who was shot dead — is that it allows no public vetting of the facts of the case. It leaves an incomplete public record of the incident, and one rife with questions.
It doesn't allow a jury — representatives of the citizenry of California — to sift through the complete transcript of officers' interviews with Hislop and compare it to their statements under oath during trial. It doesn't allow them to watch video footage of the shooting to see if Newmaker had a baton in his hands and was swinging it at an officer's head, as the officers allege, or if he was on the ground when shot in the back, as the autopsy results seem to suggest. So we're all left to wonder and, likely, fall back on our own preconceived notions of police officers and deadly force events.
Police officers are forced daily to make split-second decisions, often with grave consequences. Sometimes those consequences are fatal to the parties involved but the men and women policing our streets have the right to do what's necessary to make sure they and their colleagues make it home safe at the end of the shift. And we the public have no reasonable expectation that they be perfect every time — officers, after all, are fallible humans like the rest of us. But we do have every right to expect that after officers takes someone's life they be honest and transparent about what happened, and that the ensuing investigation be a fact finding mission with one target: the truth.
This case and this settlement bring those expectations into question and that's beyond troubling. We urge the city of Fortuna to release the video footage of the shooting, along with transcripts of depositions and interviews with the involved officers, to restore some of the trust this case has chipped away from the fragile balance between police and those they are sworn to protect.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.