Lakewood police have built community trust

Re: “Why long delay in giving details of fatal shooting?” (editorial, 5-12).

The opinion piece raises many healthy questions. Why not more body cameras? Why not a civilian oversight body for the police?

After 40 years in the police profession, I believe with all my heart that police in general and the Lakewood police in particular have a good story to tell. Cameras and the like will only enable us to tell that story better — and personally, I welcome them.

When occasionally the story is not so good, good police managers follow the dictum taught to me by my old boss, Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor: “If you mess up, first ’fess up and then clean up.” These initiatives will only help that process.

In response to the question about policing the mentally ill, the Lakewood police are keenly aware that Western State Hospital, the largest mental health facility west of the Mississippi, is an important part of the Lakewood community.

From incorporation, the Lakewood Police Department and the City of Lakewood have built close relationships with the administration of Western State and Greater Lakes Mental Health, the regional mental health organization serving the Lakewood community.

The LPD purchased Tasers for all uniformed officers soon after the device’s introduction to provide nonlethal options expressly for cases when mentally ill offenders are violent and noncompliant.

Chief Mike Zaro has for some time served on the Greater Lakes Mental Health Board and is forging benchmark programs for cooperation between health and police professionals to better serve the mentally ill.

Finally, why the delay in providing details about the shooting?

I agree that The News Tribune should demand more and faster transparency from police; that is the media’s fundamental role in a democratic society. However, Zaro and the City of Lakewood must balance that legitimate demand with the constitutional rights of the officers, who serve in many communities on a volatile frontier where what’s wrong in America comes to climax.

They are often forced to make very difficult decisions in dangerous situations with limited information and time. Their safety and the safety of proximate citizens is and should remain paramount.

The decision of police officers to waive their right to silence when their actions are being investigated is made on the advice of private legal counsel and is not under the control of police administrators. Until their statements are obtained, the facts of the situation are not clear and speculation about the case is both risky and potentially inflammatory.

Communities that trust their police must allow the investigation process to take its fair course. Police departments must work hard in the community to build that trust before these tragic but inevitable situations. I believe LPD has.

Zaro got the officers’ statements on Thursday, May 7. He personally briefed the family on the results of the investigation the following day. He held his press conference the following Monday —and answered every question posed to him in a forthright manner. Those are reasonable actions.

Larry Saunders is a former Lakewood police chief.