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Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang -- You're Dead 

Two-plus months after police shot Idriss Stelley 20 times, they still won't release their reports on the death

Wednesday, Aug 29 2001
During the first weeks of May 1968, police roamed Parisian streets into the wee hours of the morning, hunting for student protesters. They attacked, beat, and in some cases raped and killed people they found. Official reports obscured the extent of the brutality, but bystanders recalled hearing muffled cries and sounds of beatings emanating from closed police vans. Doctors described being prohibited from treating victims' wounds.

Mesha Irizarry, a French-Basque woman of bright and steely disposition, was there. She later moved to the United States and began a new life, but she will never forget the nightmare of 1968. "I have always lived under the impression it left on me," Irizarry says, but with time her fear of police tempered. "Because of my profession, I transcended that. I did training for them. I cooperated with them."

Irizarry has spent her American life working with the downtrodden -- substance abusers, the homeless, immigrants, runaway battered women -- and is now a manager for a Hayward nonprofit, Emergency Shelter Programs, which operates two domestic-violence shelters and a homeless shelter. She has given seminars to police officers on responding to domestic violence, to situations involving drug use, and to the public manifestations of psychological illness. She describes giving her most recent presentation, in February 1999.

"It was training about law enforcement's use of force, and intervention in the use of violence," Irizarry says. "I talked to them about substance use. I talked to them about mental health, and what really sticks in my mind is that I was talking to them about excessive use of force."

On Wednesday, June 13, 2001, Irizarry received a call from Summer Galbreath, the girlfriend of her 23-year-old son. The son, Idriss Stelley, treated for depression since the age of 7, had suffered a psychotic episode while watching a movie at one of the theaters in the Metreon multiplex South of Market. Galbreath asked the woman she expected to become her mother-in-law what she should do.

"She told me to call the police," Galbreath recalls.

She did. Officers from three SFPD stations arrived and entered the theater. And some combination of them shot Stelley, who apparently did not have a gun, more than 20 times.

Ideally, at this point in this story, I would describe exactly what provoked the officers to shoot and kill Stelley, a large, African-American computer student. I would study the coroner's report, and I would read the police incident report, and I, along with reporters from other media, would attempt to interview the two civilian couples said to be present in the theater during the shooting. We would use all available documented detail to explain what happened in the moments after San Francisco police officers stepped through the theater doors.

If it turned out to be true that police emptied their weapons at a man who was brandishing a bamboo-peeling tool with a 2-inch-long blade, as his mother says, the entire city might become outraged by our reports. Idriss Stelley might become San Francisco's version of Amadou Diallo, the unarmed black man whom New York police shot 41 times in a Bronx doorway. Public outcry might provoke a serious re-evaluation of SFPD procedure, and even lead to expanded special police training for incidents involving the mentally ill. It might cause San Francisco citizens, their elected officials, and the police themselves to ask this question: Was Idriss Stelley shot to death merely because he was a large, agitated, mentally ill African-American?

But this is California, where police never have to say they're sorry, so I cannot obtain the coroner's report. The city Medical Examiner's Office says the report won't be ready for several more weeks or so -- that's to say, some three months after Stelley was killed. And it's not as if the examination itself could have taken a long time; Stelley was cremated late in June. (Just for comparison's sake, Santa Clara County issues more than half of its autopsy reports within 24 hours of death, and the vast majority within 60 days. In very rare cases, where additional police investigation is necessary to determine the precise cause of death, autopsies can take longer, says Santa Clara County Coroner Gregory Schmunk.)

SFPD Detective Holly Pera tells me the police incident report -- a routine document describing any event involving police -- won't be made public for at least another month, even though in civilized places like Texas, incident reports on homicides are routinely available within days of the incident.

The civil attorney Irizarry hired to pursue a wrongful-death suit, meanwhile, has received the incident report, but says the police asked him not to release the report to the press -- so he won't.

None of this obscurantist folderol constitutes a violation of law or procedure -- in California it's entirely lawful, even a matter of routine, to use a loophole in the state public records law to conceal information pertaining to possible police misconduct for as long as is necessary to cool the public temper.

In San Francisco, much is made about the public's right to know what public servants are up to. Modifications of the city's so-called Sunshine Ordinance are splashed onto the ballot every year or so. Casual, out-of-chambers meetings between members of this or that commission produce hue-and-cry headlines about violations of public meeting guidelines.

But the Stelley shooting illustrates that there's a life-or-death aspect to public access to information, and that in some important ways, San Francisco's public servants are as secretive as those in Gaullist France.

The Medical Examiner's Office almost certainly performed Idriss Stelley's autopsy soon after the shooting -- the body did have to be cremated, after all.

Delaying the release of police reports on the shooting is an even more specious exercise in truth-hiding. The initial police investigation would typically have involved examining the scene of the incident and interviewing people present at the time of the shooting. This, likewise, would have been completed promptly under normal circumstances. But a ridiculous exception in California public records law allows police to withhold "investigative files" as long as they desire. Police can, in fact, keep investigative reports secret even after an investigation is complete. State law also prohibits municipalities from interfering with law enforcement investigations, essentially de-fanging our vaunted local Sunshine Ordinance.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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