As accidental deaths go, David Sal Silva's is one of the most unusual you'll ever hear about. Hog-tied, beaten with batons and held down by as many as nine sheriff's deputies and CHP officers, Silva, in a startling coincidence of tragic timing, died suddenly of chronic hypertension.
That's right: Silva's May 8 death has officially been classified as accidental.
As stunning a revelation as that might be, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, speaking at a Thursday afternoon news conference about the in-custody death that made national headlines, delivered a statement that truly takes us aback:
The Silva case is the clearest example yet of why the Sheriff's Office does not need an incident review panel that includes ordinary citizens. Why? Because, Youngblood suggested, regular folks not affiliated with law enforcement would be too "emotional" to make reasoned decisions. Inflamed by the media -- apparently the biggest bad guy in this whole sordid mess -- non-cops would be inclined to take positions that fail to consider the unvarnished realities of law and order.
Youngblood is right -- if the citizen members of an incident review panel are selected by way of a radio station promotion or some other such random, frivolous method.
But no jurisdiction with citizen representation on its review board, and there are many across the country, selects panel members from among the drivers idling at fast-food drive-up windows. The citizens who serve on these panels tend to be educated, responsible members of the community who appreciate the great challenges and dangers of keeping the peace -- but aren't so indoctrinated into the culture of law enforcement that they rubber-stamp all but the most grotesque cases.
What do we usually get when incident review committees are composed exclusively of deputies' badge-wearing peers and their superiors? We get conclusions that sound very much like the conclusions Youngblood announced at Thursday's gathering. To wit:
Everyone was at fault here except law enforcement. The witnesses who videotaped the incident hate cops. The media sensationalized the case in a "shameful" way and whipped up public "hysteria." Everyone in Kern County (except local media) loves the sheriff's department and believes it handled the case appropriately. The bruising on Silva's head was the result of a fall and not baton strikes to the head. The conduct of the deputies at the scene of Silva's death, and at the home of the witnesses whose cellphones were confiscated, was textbook perfect. Silva, a large, strong man, had a pharmacy's worth of drugs in his system at the time of his death, so he contributed significantly to his own death.
In other words, Youngblood gave no ground. Criticisms of his department were completely and utterly without merit.
News conference adjourned.
Perhaps, as Youngblood suggests, his department handled this case in the best way possible. Perhaps, as he implies, officials' every move was morally and legally defensible. But if that's true, surely a review panel with two or three citizen members would see it, too -- and the public would be at least somewhat more comfortable with a case that has so many red flags it looks like a Soviet May Day parade.