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Experts: Silence After Texas Police Shooting Risks Mistrust

This photo provided by the family of Michael Dean, shows Dean with his daughter Te'yana. Dean was killed Dec. 2, 2019, in Temple.
Courtesy Michael Dean Family
Associated Press
This photo provided by the family of Michael Dean, shows Dean with his daughter Te'yana. Dean was killed Dec. 2, 2019, in Temple.

A small Texas police department’s silence about what prompted an officer to fatally shoot a man in the head nearly three weeks ago deviates from how some other recent police shootings in the state were handled, and law enforcement experts warn it risks stirring public mistrust.

Officer Carmen DeCruz has been on paid leave since the Dec. 2 shooting of 28-year-old Michael Dean in Temple, about 70 miles northeast of Austin. The department has released no information other than the names and that blood was found in Dean’s car.

A preliminary autopsy released by the county found Dean was killed by a shot to the head and classified his death a homicide. Beyond that, there has been been no official account of the shooting, leaving open questions about how the two men came into contact and what led DeCruz to open fire.

Stephen Nasta, a former commander with the New York City Police Department, said there’s no uniform timeline for the release of information in a police shooting but that the public and family should be informed of the facts “as soon as practical.”

“The best practice is to shine light on a situation and let people know as much as you can let them know without impeding the investigation,” said Nasta, who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Two weeks appears to be a long period without giving more details of that case.”

Authorities in Temple called in the Texas Rangers, an investigative division of the state Department of Public Safety, to do a criminal probe of Dean’s death. Local police have largely deferred to them, saying the Rangers directed them not to release further details on the shooting.

A spokesman for the Rangers, Sgt. Bryan Washko, said Thursday that he could not release further information because the investigation is ongoing, nor could he say when it would be completed. He said the Rangers have not told Temple police to remain silent and that the local department is doing so “at their discretion to not jeopardize the ongoing open investigation.”

The fact that Dean was shot in the head rather than the torso raises other questions about the shooting. Police are generally trained to aim for center of mass, and it’s uncommon for an officer to shoot someone in the head on purpose, said Tom Manger, a retired police chief in Virginia and Maryland.

“The only reason you’d intentionally shoot someone in the head is you have an immediate threat that you have to stop,” said Manger, who stressed he does not know the circumstances of the Temple shooting.

Dallas attorney Lee Merritt, who is representing Dean’s family, said last week that the silence from authorities is “completely unfair and particularly cruel” to Dean’s family.

“I’ve never, ever, ever, ever seen a case where there was absolutely no narrative, even if it was one that was later proved wrong,” he said.

The flow of information from police in Temple contrasts how some other Texas departments have handled recent fatal shootings by officers.

In Fort Worth, police released an account of events and body camera footage within hours of an officer shooting a woman in her home in October. The officer was charged with murder two days later.

In Dallas last year, police also laid out a basic set of facts hours after an off-duty officer shot a man in his apartment, which the officer said she mistook for her own on the floor below. The officer was arrested three days later.

But experts say comparing the shooting in Temple, a city of 76,000 people about 130 miles southwest of Dallas, to high-profile cases in much larger cities isn’t necessarily apt.

The “bizarre and unusual” aspects of Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson’s shootings prompted intense media scrutiny and the release of information, said Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson. But that’s not the norm in the hundreds of deadly police shootings around the country each year, he said.

“It is not at all unusual in my opinion that in a fatal police shooting case that there may be a dearth of information available while investigations are ongoing,” said Stinson, a former officer, adding that detectives need “leeway” to work.

Communication can break down when police bring in other agencies to investigate and sometimes what appears from the outside to be obstruction is actually internal “floundering,” said Kevin Davis, an Ohio detective and police instructor.

“It is a sad truism that most mid-to-small-size agencies are ill-prepared to investigate and deal with an officer-involved shooting,” said Davis, who wrote a book on investigating officer’s use of force.

While there are many legitimate reasons to hold some facts back, several policing experts said, putting what you can out is vital to maintaining public trust and preventing the spread of misinformation.

Alex Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Texas at Dallas, said he gives the Temple department the benefit of the doubt. But he also warned of what can fill the vacuum left by an absent official account.

“When you create questions for people in their heads, they start jumping to conclusions and creating their own narrative and that’s never good for a police agency,” Piquero said. “Police departments need to be in front of the story and not chasing the story or behind it.”