Silence breeds mistrust

The circumstances of Steven Juarez’s death while in Gilroy police custody last month remain under investigation by law enforcement. The fact that the official investigation is unresolved doesn’t give elected city officials a pass on leadership.

Police have offered no evidence to support their contentions that officers did nothing wrong. Likewise, family and friends of Juarez have offered no evidence or witnesses to support their contentions that overzealous police killed the 42-year-old. Sitting on the information while questions linger stokes suspicions that either a coverup is in progress—or that the city is bracing itself for a bombshell.

The death has exposed a wide range of emotions from an Old Gilroy neighborhood—pain, resentment, mistrust, hostility, fear, anxiety, anger.

It has shed a spotlight on problems that continue to plague our community—crime, drug abuse, neighborhood neglect, mental health, street gangs, unemployment, ex-prisoners.

And it has raised nagging questions about public safety—police training, use-of-force policies, ‘non-lethal’ restraints, use of (and release of videos from) body cameras, community policing, relations with Latino communities, police oversight.

All of these issues are real. They existed before police took Steven Juarez down with a carotid restraint and they will linger long after this incident works its way through the legal system. They all are being talked in shops, taverns, front porches and living rooms. But not in public. These are issues that demand to be dealt with and discussed in public by our entire community. They all are issues that face cities throughout California—and the U.S.

On Monday, Mayor Roland Velasco issued his first two-sentence comment on the incident, after a month of deafening silence.

He said: “This investigation is complex and will not be rushed to a conclusion. At the same time, I am also confident that all proper protocols are being followed regarding this tragic incident. ”

That’s it? It’s time the mayor and the rest of the city leadership address the anger and tensions within the community head on. It’s time for the mayor and every member of the City Council—our elected leaders—to speak up and to call for openness and candor—if not about the unanswered questions about the incident, then at least about the issues that simmer under the surface.

Here is what city and county law enforcement should do, at the request of  the City Council if necessary. If not now, after more than 30 days, then when?

  • Release all 911 tapes of that fateful Sunday evening on Chestnut Street, while protecting the privacy of the original complainant. This would show how a trespass/nuisance call escalated to a violent and fatal confrontation.
  • Release the police body camera tapes. When the City of Sacramento last year approved use of body cameras, it also required that videos from the cameras be available to the public 30 days after an incident.
  • Release the preliminary autopsy report. The extent and nature of wounds, plus cause of death, could ease—or confirm—public concerns about whether police overreacted.
  • Release the identify of the officers involved in the struggle with Juarez, including specifics of the actions of each, plus any disciplinary actions related to the incident. This goes to the heart of accountability and transparency, as it relates to public confidence in law enforcement.

Once the investigation of any possible criminal action by the police is closed, then all of this evidence is no longer protected as part of an ongoing investigation. It is a matter of public record and should be released.