A crucial — and wise — decision was made in the hours after a fatal confrontation between two Del Norte County sheriff’s officers and a man who was reportedly out of control at a residence north of Crescent City.
That decision was to bring in an outside agency to investigate the incident from the outset. Daniel Sylvester, 35, died Tuesday morning after being Tasered. Investigators from the California Department of Justice were on the scene the next morning.
This contrasts with what happened two years ago after the fatal shooting by a deputy of an unarmed man who charged at officers on the Hiouchi Bridge. The incident was investigated by the county District Attorney’s Office and internally by the Sheriff’s Office.
Both investigations found that the shooting was justified and that officers acted properly that day, but the county later agreed to pay out an undisclosed sum in excess of $100,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the man’s family.
This time, DA Mike Riese said his office would not investigate the Tuesday incident because it “involves deputies that have a close personal relationship with this office.”
He’s right. And it’s too bad he didn’t make the same decision two years ago, not because there was anything wrong with the investigation his office conducted, but because Del Norte is simply too small of a county to investigate its own officers when a death is involved.
An outside agency such as the state Department of Justice has more credibility from the outset, which is all the more reason that everyone should exercise a little restraint and let this investigation run its course. Already, a sheriff’s spokesman has implied the officers acted appropriately, while an attorney for Sylvester’s mother has stated they did not.
The case will get a lot of attention outside Del Norte County because police use of Tasers and other conducted energy devices (CEDs) has long been controversial. In 2004, Amnesty International called for agencies to suspend their use. The U.S. Department of Justice launched a study in 2006. Its preliminary conclusion: “Field experience with CED use indicates that exposure is safe in the vast majority of cases. Therefore, law enforcement agencies need not refrain from deploying CEDs.”
The key, of course, is to use them to de-escalate a confrontation rather than escalate it.
The two officers locked in a violent struggle with Sylvester could have drawn their firearms. Instead, one or both of them resorted to Tasering, which is not lethal in most instances.
Was it the proper response? That question, thankfully, is now in the hands of the Department of Justice.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of Tuesday’s tragedy, Del Norters should remember what transpired just three days earlier on South Bank Road. Like the Sylvester case, people had fled a home and called 911 for help. Officers responded and eventually convinced a woman with a rifle to surrender peacefully.
They don’t have an easy job.