In the weeks following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, San Marcos officials have reacted to the issue of use of excessive force by police.
San Marcos Police Chief Chase Stapp said it is no secret that San Marcos police officers have been disciplined in the past for using excessive force. One notable example in recent years was in May 2013, when Cpl. James Palermo assaulted a female Texas State student during an illegal arrest. The student suffered a concussion and broken teeth as a result of the incident. Palermo was indefinitely suspended, the civil service equivalent of being fired, several months later after an internal investigation.
“Fortunately it’s been rare, but we have had instances where we’ve disciplined officers for uses of force we felt were inappropriate,” Stapp said. “For the most part, our officers really understand those boundaries.”
Mayor Daniel Guerrero said he has been pleased with the way these controversial cases have been handled by SMPD.
“I think that the way both Chief Williams and Chief Stapp have handled it is to be very upfront with the situation,” Guerrero said. “Anytime there’s been an encounter where excessive force was used, they’ve done their best to just get it out early, provide as much information and details as they can legally provide.”
It’s integral to be as transparent as possible in the media following an incident where excessive force may have been used, Stapp said.
“I think it’s really important that an agency that’s being accused of excessive force should try and get out into the public quickly and let them know as much as you can,” Stapp said. “The challenge is that because you have to preserve the investigation, many times you can’t say a lot early on, and so sometimes it’s hard to be transparent.”
Stapp said that the rise of filming police creates challenges for agencies. If a video depicting the use of force gets out into the public before the agency has had a chance to explain or investigate cases, it can shed a bad light on the force.
“The difficult thing is that these days almost everything police officers do is captured on video, whether it be their own video or a video being shot by a citizen nearby,” Stapp said. “When the police has to use force, it almost never looks good. It’s never a pleasant thing to look at, even if it’s totally justified.”
In July, a U.S. magistrate judge upheld the constitutional right to photograph and film police officers in the case of Antonio Buehler, an Austin-area activist, who filed a federal lawsuit against the Austin Police Department after being arrested for filming officers in 2012, according to the Austin American-Statesmen.
Stapp said the initial reactions of the local community to the incident in Ferguson were disappointing.
“People are jumping to a particular conclusion before the facts are out, and that’s the dangerous part,” Stapp said. “No matter how bad a use of force was, you just don’t know if that use of force was justified until the investigation is completed.”
Stapp said not enough facts are out for him to judge whether the shooting of Brown was justified.
Both Stapp and Guerrero said that having a positive relationship between a police force and the community it serves is integral to keeping the peace.
“A department’s relationship with their community is something that needs to be worked on day in and day out, and it’s important to keep that relationship healthy so that when something like this happens, there will be a level of trust there,” Stapp said. “It’s the day-to-day contact that our officers have with the public that makes that impression on the public. You can’t ever lose sight of that.”