Lubbock police: No more blanket policy on identifying officers in shootings

By Gabriel Monte
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
Originally published Oct. 25, 2014

In an effort to protect the safety of officers and their families, Lubbock Police Department officials are moving away from a blanket policy of identifying officers involved in a shooting.

Greg Stevens, Lubbock police assistant chief, said the decision was made after asking police officials from other Texas cities about their policies regarding identifying officers.

“The leading answer was: We don’t identify the officer unless there is wrongdoing on the officer’s part, and of course then they do,” he said. “And so with that, (Lubbock police) Chief (Roger) Ellis and I have discussed it and we think that’s just the best way going forward.”

It’s a move open government advocates believe goes against the principles of government transparency.

The new policy comes about two months after the Aug. 25 fatal shooting of Guadalupe Esquivel at the hands of a Lubbock police officer in the 2800 block of Cornell Street.

An officer responded to the scene after Esquivel’s former girlfriend called police saying he had threatened to kill her and her children.

Stevens said a police officer found Esquivel and ordered him to show his hands. Instead, the 51-year-old walked into a crowd and pulled a pistol from his waistband.

The officer fired 11 shots at Esquivel. No other injuries were reported.

Stevens said he will not identify the officer, who is 28 years old and has been with the department about four years. The officer had never been involved in a shooting before.

The case was presented Oct. 14 to a Lubbock County grand jury, which found no evidence to indict the officer on criminal charges, Stevens said.

A shooting review board, consisting of three officers with the rank of lieutenant or higher and an officer with the same rank as the officer involved in the shooting, is wrapping up its report.

Stevens believes the review board will clear the officer, who is already back on duty.

“It looks like everything in this circumstance here worked: The 911 call, the way the dispatchers got the call out, just the whole system really came together. The only thing that we wished was different was that we could have had a peaceful resolution and, unfortunately, that just wasn’t a decision we got to make,” he said.

A new policy

Before the Aug. 25 encounter, Lubbock police officers involved in shootings were identified regardless of the circumstance.

With the new policy, officials will determine whether or not to publicly identify officers involved in a shooting based on the facts surrounding it.

“Previously, there was a blanket policy to just identify the officer,” Stevens said. “And that’s what we’re trying to get away from is that idea of a blanket policy; we want to take each situation and take the merits of the individual situation and actually make a decision whether it’s appropriate to identify the officer or not.”

He said if investigators find no wrongdoing on the officer’s part, the officer’s identity will not be revealed in police media.

He said the new policy aims to protect officers and their families.

He said he believes retaliation against police officers is unlikely but it’s a risk the department is not willing to take.

The policy is similar to the department’s practice of not identifying the names of citizens determined to be acting in self-defense and are not arrested.

“We recognize that we are public figures and we want to have as much transparency as possible while still protecting the integrity of investigations and the safety of everyone involved,” Stevens said.

However, he said that information will still be available to the public in police reports, which can be requested through an open records request.

“Now if a news media outlet wants to identify them, we think, OK, it’s a responsibility that they decide to take,” he said.

Terry Greenberg, vice president of audience for A-J Media, said the Avalanche-Journal will respect LPD’s decision not to release the identity of the officer in the Aug. 25 shooting.

“We have mixed feelings,” Greenberg said. “Obviously, we believe public information should be public. I do wonder if the situation in Ferguson, Missouri, may have influenced this decision. So we sat down to discuss balancing the public’s right to know with the safety of first responders. So, in this case, we will respect the Lubbock Police Department’s request. But we are also pointing out the information is public and already available.”

Residents can request a copy of a criminal report for free at the Lubbock Police Department’s records office.

Stevens said the department’s decision was not influenced by the situation in Ferguson.

“We feel like we have a better connection with our community than that situation, but we don’t want to at all speculate on that situation; that doesn’t have anything to do with us,” he said.

Riots and civil unrest erupted in Ferguson after a white police officer responding to an Aug. 9 robbery shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, a black man who was unarmed. Ferguson police did not identify the officer involved in the shooting until almost a week later. Ferguson police officials also cited safety of the officer and his family.

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said she is concerned with LPD’s new policy.

“It’s a cause for concern because it’s as if they’re trying to prevent some information from getting out to the public,” she said. “A police department ought to want to be viewed as transparent and forthright with the public, and providing information goes in that direction. It helps the public and a police department ought to want to be seen as transparent and answerable to the public.”

A question of
transparency

Jim Hemphill, an Austin attorney who works with the foundation, said the department’s new policy does not violate open record laws because the officer’s identify is still revealed in police reports, which are public records.

“But I think it’s contrary to the principles underlying the public information act, which is government transparency,” he said. “This is the kind of thing that, obviously, is of a high degree of interest to the public and, I think, if the information is public it should proactively be made available to the public without having to make a request.”

Stevens said the policy also aims to shield officers from a public spotlight that could hamper their recovery from psychological issues stemming from a shooting.

“It’s a life-changing event for the officer,” he said. “It’s something that police officers go through an entire career and they hope to never have to do something like that. And so we want the officer to be able to push past this, continue to have a good career. We think that it’s just prudent to afford that degree of privacy if policy was followed and if the law was followed; we think that’s the best decision,” he said.

Mayor Glen Robertson applauds the department’s efforts, which he believes try to strike the balance of protecting police officers and informing the public.

“And that’s a tough balance to strike, but I think this is a good move,” he said.

He said operational policies such as identifying police officers is left to the police chief.

“Now the council could go in and try to micromanage his business. If we have a problem, I think you’ll see us do that,” he said. “But I think this is a good start to try to protect those officers, and still get the public the information they need if somebody needs to request it.”