What took so long?
After a handful of high-profile killings of unarmed minority men, it’s baffling why the Lakewood Police Department took nearly three weeks to make public details of the April 21 shooting death of Daniel Covarrubias – including whether he had been armed.
That kind of delay only feeds suspicions that the shooting might not be justified, that perhaps time was needed to get stories straight.
The 37-year-old man was shot five times by police officers who were finally identified Monday by interim Police Chief Mike Zaro as David Butts and Ryan Hamilton. The chief also said that Covarrubias pointed a cellphone at the officers, who believed it to be a gun.
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Under most police department guidelines, use of lethal force is permitted if officers feel their lives are in danger. That is why so few police shootings are ruled unjustified; it’s nearly impossible to prove a negative.
Many questions remain in this incident. For instance:
• The officers returned to duty Thursday. Shouldn’t they have been identified before going back to work? Their return to duty suggests the department concluded even earlier that the shooting was justified. If so, why does the public have to wait to find that out?
• The officers involved did not provide statements to the department until nine days after the shootings. Why? Zaro says they were concerned about anti-police protests elsewhere, such as in Baltimore. But that’s more of a reason to act swiftly, not to delay and feed suspicion.
• The Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is investigating the shooting to determine if it was justified. Doesn’t a case like this cry out for an oversight board that includes community members with no ties to law enforcement?
• This is a clear case where police body cameras might shed valuable light. Lakewood has considered body cams and even conducted a trial last year. Could this shooting provide more impetus to use the devices?
• Apparently Covarrubias was known in the neighborhood as someone with mental health issues. Is the department satisfied that officers are sufficiently trained to deal with people like that?
Given Lakewood’s failure to be open about this shooting, it is very fortunate that there wasn’t an explosion of anger like there has been in other cities. City officials need to ensure this kind of stonewalling doesn’t happen again.