SAN DIEGO — Representatives of the NAACP and the Nation of Islam on Monday criticized a decision by Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis not to file criminal charges against three San Diego police officers for the fatal shooting of an unarmed African American man.
The incident highlights a change in policy involving investigations into police shootings by the district attorney's office. Unlike her predecessor, Dumanis does not permit official letters detailing police shootings to be released on the district attorney's website.
The seven-page summary of the investigation into the Oct. 11 shooting of Billye Venable, however, was released to the media by the police chief, not by Dumanis.
"Non-disclosure is disrespectful to the [Venable] family and implies that the district attorney has something to hide," said H.J. Sims, attorney for the Venable family.
Venable, 26, was fatally shot while allegedly resisting arrest for violating parole. Police said Venable grabbed an officer's holstered gun and refused repeated commands to give up.
"I'm sick and tired of police officers coming into our community like it's a military zone," said Councilman Charles Lewis, who represents the racially diverse neighborhood where the deadly confrontation took place.
Lewis and others were particularly incensed that the account of Dumanis' office's investigation of the shooting sent to Police Chief Bill Lansdowne began with a lengthy recitation of Venable's criminal history.
"When you look at this report, it painted a picture of a monster," Lewis said. "These shootings can be prevented. The chief has to be held accountable to change the training and attitude of the Police Department."
Dumanis, at a news conference, said she is willing to meet the Venable family to discuss her findings. But she defended her policy of not disclosing letters or backup materials regarding such shootings.
Dumanis said it is inappropriate to post such letters on the Web because they might include witnesses' names and information about the criminal history of the person killed.
"I cannot control the cynical media," Dumanis said. "Whether it's popular or not, I believe in doing the right thing."
Lansdowne, at a separate meeting with reporters, said the shooting is being investigated by the department's shooting review board and will also be reviewed by a civilian oversight group. He sidestepped a question about Dumanis' policy of not disclosing information.
"I would not want to be in the position of speaking for the district attorney," said Lansdowne, "but I think law enforcement should be open."
Dumanis defeated two-term incumbent Paul Pfingst in a close and bitter election in November 2002.
Under Pfingst, letters summarizing the district attorney's findings in police shooting cases were released.
After the fatal shooting in 1999 of former pro football player Demetrius Dubose by San Diego officers, Pfingst opted to post nearly the entire 327-page investigation -- including diagrams, medical reports and statements by witnesses and officers -- to avoid any assertions of a cover-up.
Although Pfingst's investigation determined that the officers were justified in using lethal force, the posting of the documents angered many officers.
The San Diego Police Officers Assn., already annoyed at Pfingst, later endorsed Dumanis; soon after being elected, Dumanis ended the policy of releasing the material.
Venable was shot in the head during a confrontation in which officers say he grabbed an officer's holstered gun and refused several commands to give up. Officers were trying to arrest Venable on a warrant listing him as a parole violator considered "armed and dangerous."
According to the Dumanis letter, Venable tried to run away, was tackled and grabbed the officer's gun while the two were on the ground. A second officer fired into Venable's temple.
"When you have three officers on the scene, a traffic stop should not escalate into a homicide," said Douglas Oden, president of the local chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
"Just because you have a gun doesn't mean you have to shoot someone in the head," he said.
In addition to the NAACP and the Nation of Islam, a local group called Black Men United objected to the district attorney's decision not to file charges.
Venable, a member of the Emerald Hill Blood street gang, had convictions for burglary, spousal battery, carrying a loaded firearm and making terrorist threats. When killed, he was being investigated by police in Chula Vista and National City on allegations of domestic violence in those cities.
A day after the shooting, police cars were pelted with bottles and rocks as they patrolled the neighborhood.
"The public doesn't have the facts; we have the facts," said Dumanis, adding: "This is not a close call."