The recent death of Reginald Thomas in Pasadena shows why police transparency matters

In the wake of every officer-involved death of a civilian, the public and the media calls for transparency. We call for the authorities we entrust with our safety, we fund with our tax dollars, whom we give consent to police our lives to come clean with all the facts on how a state-supported agency ended a civilian’s life.

We ask for body cameras, audio and video evidence to be made public. And we ask for the names of the officers involved in the deaths of civilians to be released. Too often the response from law enforcement and from municipalities is to stall; to cite officer safety; to say all the evidence is part of an ongoing investigation, or to say releasing names and evidence only serves to satiate the prurient appetite of the press.

Bullshit. The needs of the media to examine the actions, during and before any of these deaths, of the officers involved is no less a check on the actions of government as is covering Congressional hearings or a city council meeting. Still, law enforcement, perhaps the government agency we have the most frequent interactions with, would rather behave like a secret cabal than to be held publicly accountable for its actions.

On Sept. 29, Reginald Thomas was killed in his home by an undisclosed number of police officers from the Pasadena Police Department. It’s been 10 days since Thomas’ death, and neither the city nor its police department have released the names of the officers who tasered, cuffed and watched Thomas die in his own home. The cops were summoned to Thomas’ home by a medical emergency. Thomas may have been under the influence of drugs and his family was concerned about his behavior. He was holding a knife and a fire extinguisher when the officers arrived.

Thomas was shocked with a Taser, and he dropped the knife.

Witnesses at the scene, which included Thomas’ girlfriend and two of his children, claim the officers, including Mathew Griffin, proceeded to kick Thomas in the torso and head while he laid on the ground. The officers are alleged to have delayed administering CPR and calling the paramedics, according to a civil claim filed Friday by Thomas’ family.

A grainy surveillance video appears to capture images of Griffin at the apartment complex during the incident, and the officer has been named in the civil claim filed by the Thomas family. The Pasadena Star-News attempted to contact Pasadena police Chief Phillip Sanchez to confirm whether Griffin was indeed involved in the incident, but Sanchez could not be reached.

Ten days, and not one name of the officers involved from the agency whose officers are allegedly responsible for his death.

What are they hiding?

Griffin’s name should be familiar to Pasadena residents, especially the McDade and Slaughter families. Griffin was of two cops who shot and killed unarmed Kendrec McDade in March 2012. Griffin and partner Jeffrey Newlen were never charged criminally for their roles in the rabid pursuit and slaying of McDade, who was alleged to have acted as a lookout in the theft of a backpack full of cell phones. I covered the McDade shooting for more than a year, and even if you believe McDade acted like a lookout (the witness in the theft changed his story on who ran from the scene with the backpack full of cell phones 12 times in a sworn deposition and lied to 9–1–1 dispatcher saying that McDade and an accomplice were armed), the evidence supporting McDade’s role in the theft is in thin. As of publication of this piece, the Pasadena Police Department has not released video evidence it claims puts McDade at the scene of the theft which preceded his death

As is the case now with Thomas, the Pasadena Police Department would not immediately release the names of the officers involved. The names of the officers came from McDade’s family attorney Caree Harper, and were later confirmed by the city. Harper is also representing the Thomas family.

What followed in the McDade case sounds so much like the investigation of the Freddie Gray case, one has to wonder how the Pasadena Police Department hasn’t come under the same level of federal scrutiny as the Baltimore Police Department.

The Pasadena Police Department hired the OIR Group, an agency which routinely conducts police investigations, to conduct its a probe of the McDade shooting. The OIR group’s investigation was to be in concert with an administrative review of the shooting by the Pasadena Police Department. However, the internal investigation by the Pasadena Police Department — an investigation which would have greatly assisted not only the OIR group in its investigation, but a separate federal probe which was underway at the time and the criminal investigation led by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Justice System Integrity Division — was never conducted.

When the police chief and city leaders contracted with the OIR Group in March 2012, they vowed not only transparency, but to deliver the report by year’s end. The OIR Report was delayed for almost three years. The Pasadena Police Officers Association tried to prevent the report’s release to the public and it took a lawsuit filed by Dale Gronemeier to release the report, which by the time of its release had been reviewed by the city and its top cop Sanchez. More than 20 percent of the report was redacted.

The OIR report would detail tactical errors made by Griffin and Newlen on the night of McDade’s death. The officers failed to turn on their lights, and sirens and in doing so failed to activate the dashboard camera on the police cruiser which would have provided crucial evidence of the final minutes of McDade’s life.

And now, more than four years after the Pasadena Police Department gunned down an unarmed 19-year-old black man the home of the Tournament of Roses and the iconic Rose Bowl, the department finds itself mired in another controversial killing of black man. And as old habits don’t die hard, the department and the city have failed the transparency test — again.

Perhaps Griffin was just at the scene and had nothing to do with Thomas’ death. Three eyewitness at the scene claim Griffin kicked Thomas while the victim was on the ground. But we don’t know for sure.

And if past is truly prologue, there will be crucial details about Thomas’ life we may never know.