More than a month after three California Highway Patrol officers shot and killed 23-year-old Erik Salgado and wounded his pregnant girlfriend Brianna Colombo, also 23, police continue to withhold information about the incident from the public.
The secrecy with which CHP and Oakland police have handled the case stands in contrast to statements made by law enforcement officials and state and local leaders about the need for greater transparency regarding police use of deadly force.
State laws and a six-year-old California Supreme Court decision require police departments to make public the names of officers involved in “critical incidents” like shootings, but CHP has refused to release names or answer questions about the controversial incident.
At a press conference today on the street where Sagado was killed, his family and their attorneys criticized CHP for withholding information. They called the shooting a “massacre.”
“Today would have been his 24th birthday,” Salgado’s mother, Selina Ramirez, said. “I’m trying to figure out the names of the officers who killed my son.”
CHP has released no information since the deadly shooting on the evening of June 6. CHP Captain Tyler Eccles declined multiple requests from The Oaklandside for the names of the three officers who shot Salgado.
At today’s press conference, attorneys John Burris, Jim Chanin, and Ben Nisenbaum said they felt the need to respond to a “misleading and false narrative concocted to justify the CHP officers shooting their guns, including a high powered rifle into a car over 40 times.”
The narrative they referred to was mostly contained in the only statement Oakland police have made about the shooting.
According to an OPD statement that was issued June 9, CHP officers identified the vehicle Salgado was driving, a Dodge Charger Hellcat, as one of dozens that were stolen from a car dealership a week earlier in San Leandro. The CHP officers attempted a traffic stop on the 9600 block of Cherry Street at 10:45 p.m. Shortly thereafter, Salgado allegedly rammed CHP vehicles. “Three CHP officers discharged their firearms in the direction of the driver of the Dodge Hellcat, which was also occupied by a female passenger,” OPD wrote in its statement. “The driver sustained multiple gunshot wounds and later succumbed to his injuries.”
Little else is known about what happened. Asked today to release more information, OPD declined.
Burris said he was able to view Salgado’s body. He observed 18 gunshot wounds, 13 of which struck Salgado in the back.
“It was a massacre. The young people were sitting ducks as they sat in their car,” said Burris.
Chanin said CHP and the Oakland police are breaking the law by refusing to tell the public who shot Erik Salgado. “The Highway Patrol, the city of Oakland, the district attorney’s office are all complicit in this coverup,” he said today.
Legal precedent for naming officers
According to legal experts, the requirement for police agencies like CHP to disclose the names of police officers who use deadly force is long established in state law.
“As has become more obvious in recent years, police departments that hide information and refuse to provide it lose the trust of the communities they’re supposed to be serving,” said Michael Risher, an attorney who specializes in public records and open government laws.
Risher said that this legal requirement has been clear for over 20 years. In 1995, five Santa Barbara County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed a man. Reporters with the Santa Barbara News Press sought the names of the officers but the county refused to disclose this information. The New York Times, which owned the News Press at the time, filed a lawsuit. Two years later, a state appeals court ruled that the California Public Records Act requires law enforcement agencies to disclose the names of officers involved in “critical incidents,” including shootings.
In 2006, the California Supreme Court ruled in a separate case, Copley Press v. Superior Court, that all police officer disciplinary files are confidential. Some police and sheriff’s departments interpreted this to mean they could once again keep secret the names of officers, but according to Risher, the California Attorney General issued an opinion that the older appeals court ruling in the New York Times lawsuit still required disclosure.
In the years since, police departments across the state have tried keeping officers’ names secret. In 2009, Risher, who was working for the ACLU of Northern California, sued the city of Fresno after it refused to name police officers caught on camera beating a homeless man. A court ruled the officers’ names were public records and required the city to identify them.
In 2010, Long Beach police officers shot and killed a man holding a garden hose nozzle. The city refused to provide a Los Angeles Times reporter the officers’ names so the paper filed a lawsuit. In 2014, the California Supreme Court ruled in the case, holding that the names of any officers involved in a critical incident like a shooting are public records and must be released.
The court, however, did provide one exception for police to continue withholding officers’ names.
“The Supreme Court recognized there might be certain cases where there are unusual circumstances that merit withholding the information temporarily or conceivably permanently,” said Risher. “The most obvious could be an incident involving undercover officers and organized crime. There might be threats.”
But according to the Supreme Court decision, “Vague safety concerns that apply to all officers involved in shootings are insufficient to tip the balance against disclosure of officer names.”
CHP and OPD refuse to name names
The Oaklandside emailed CHP on June 8, two days after the shooting, and asked for summary information about the incident, including whether Salgado was armed and how many CHP officers were present during the shooting. CHP Public Information Officer Raul Gonzalez declined to provide any information that same day.
On June 9, The Oaklandside asked CHP again for information about the shooting, but CHP ignored our email.
On June 18, we submitted a public records request to CHP seeking the names of the CHP officers who shot Salgado and Colombo. We also asked for video footage of the incident, including from police body cameras or car cameras.
CHP responded on June 29 and refused to name the officers, citing a portion of the California Public Records Act that allows police to withhold investigative records. However, according to state law, including the 2014 Supreme Court decision, this section of the Public Records Act doesn’t give CHP this authority. In the same response letter, CHP told The Oaklandside that it doesn’t have any video footage of the shooting.
On June 29, The Oaklandside asked CHP to reconsider its refusal to name the officers who shot Salgado and Colombo. The agency responded on July 9 by again refusing to name the officers, and added new reasons for keeping the officers’ names a secret. CHP Captain Tyler Eccles cited a section of law that allows police to keep officers’ names secret if officers are facing threats of violence or harassment because of their involvement in a controversial incident. CHP did not provide any information about what these threats might be in this case.
Salgado’s family said today they’ve also not been able to get any answer from CHP. Salgado’s step-sister Amanda Majil-Blanco questioned CHPs motives for withholding the officers’ names.
“We want their names and we want to show their records,” she said about the officers. “What is the history of these CHP [officers]? They probably have killed others as well and they’re probably still patrolling the streets right now as we speak.”