Investigation into Calif. police shooting of Gulf War veteran could take a year to complete
By CYNTHIA HUBERT | The Sacramento Bee | Published: February 14, 2014
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — An investigation into the fatal shooting of a Gulf War veteran by Lodi police last month could take as long as a year to complete, a department spokesman told The Sacramento Bee.
Parminder Singh Shergill, who family members said suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder that made him anxious and depressed, was walking down the street where he lived with his mother and brother when officers shot him dead last month. Police said Shergill, 43, was carrying a knife and charged officers before they opened fire, an account that witnesses interviewed by legal investigators reportedly have disputed.
A “protocol team,” including representatives of the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office, the state Department of Justice and the Lodi Police Department are investigating the matter to determine if the shooting was justified, said police spokesman Lt. Sierra Brucia. Results may not be available for “up to a year,” Brucia said this week. He said no further information will be available until the probe is complete.
Mark Merin, a Sacramento civil rights lawyer who is representing Shergill’s family, filed a tort claim Thursday against the city of Lodi, a precursor to a lawsuit that will allege the killing violated Shergill’s constitutional right “to be free from excessive force” and his “substantive due-process rights to life and liberty.”
The claim, filed with the city clerk, names Lodi police officers Scott Bratton and Adam Lockie, who shot Shergill; Lodi’s Chief of Police Mark Helms “and his subordinates, for failing to train the offending officers” to properly handle situations involving mentally ill people; and the city of Lodi.
At Shergill’s funeral service last Saturday, family members expressed anger and frustration at the lack of information released about the shooting, and conflicting reports about what happened that day. Several witnesses interviewed shortly after the killing said they never saw Shergill with a weapon and that he never charged officers, according to Merin and Jack Johal, a Sacramento attorney who is Shergill’s cousin.
“Lots of what happened that morning just do not seem right,” said Rex Dhati, a Sikh leader at the temple where Shergill’s family attends services. “Parminder Shergill’s death needs to be explained. The family deserves answers.”
In his claim, Merin challenges the Police Department’s official explanation of why officers shot Shergill and condemns “the city’s lack of transparency in a subject of such importance as this.”
“It appears that this is an unjustified killing and that the officers involved should be prosecuted,” the claim reads. “The family and the public have a right to know” what happened after Shergill’s mother phoned police and asked that officers try to track down her son, who had been agitated when he left the house that day.
Once the lawsuit is filed, subpoenas and other legal measures can be used “to obtain information which should already have been disclosed,” according to the claim.
First Amendment experts said they were not surprised about the dearth of information released in the case.
“There is nothing new about agencies not wanting to disclose information,” particularly in a case that is high profile, said Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the institute’s First Amendment Center.
Public officials typically argue that disclosure of key information can hamper investigations, and “many times courts will defer to investigators, at least in the beginning,” Policinski said. “Generally there is a preference for waiting until an investigation is complete.”
California law maintains that “peace officer personnel records,” including records related to “personal data” and “discipline or complaints” are confidential. The law applies even in cases of alleged police misconduct that are referred to a civil service commission, said Tom Newton, executive director of the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
Judges, however, can order release of such documents to lawyers on behalf of their clients, Newton said. “The judge will determine whether it is material and relevant to the plaintiff’s claim. If it is, the judge will order it released.”