At Empty Wheel, Marcy Wheeler notes that the government is withholding autopsy information that would reveal how many of the victims of the Orlando shooting died from “friendly fire,” bullets shot by police in their effort to take out the shooter.
Orlando’s police chief said that it was possible that some law enforcement officers — that might include the four who initially responded to Omar Mateen or the nine SWAT team members who later did — had (accidentally) shot Pulse patrons.
Monday, Orlando Police Chief John Mina and other law enforcement officers offered new details about the shooting, including the possibility that some victims may have been killed by officers trying to save them.
Faced with an active shooter and a room filled with innocent people, a tactical decision must be made by police whether to fire to attempt to end the threat, even though there is a likelihood that their bullets will strike an innocent and kill them. There are times when this tactic makes sense, where the choice is between bad alternatives and the least bad alternative is chosen. There are times when it’s a tactically unsound decision.
Mina said his decision to enter the club with such violence was tough. “It was a hard decision to make, but it was the right decision,” he said. “Our No. 1 priority is on saving lives, and it was the right decision to make.”
Was it? Probably, though there is insufficient information available to reach any valid determination. And it’s this lack of information that makes acceptance of Chief Mina’s conclusion difficult.
“I will say this, that’s all part of the investigation,” Mina said. “But I will say when our SWAT officers, about eight or nine officers, opened fire, the backdrop was a concrete wall, and they were being fired upon.”
There is some magic to the incantation of the word, “investigation,” as if its mere utterance provides an official basis to withhold information. Mind you, despite there being an ongoing investigation, the government is happy to release the information it wants to release, but falls back on the word when it chooses to conceal information.
The medical examiner’s office released a statement Thursday confirming that it had, as planned, completed all the autopsies by Tuesday afternoon. But because of the ongoing investigation, autopsy reports (like Mateen’s 911 calls and all other public records) will not be released at this time.
There are reasons why information might not be disclosed during the pendency of an investigation. It may be to not tip off a suspect that the cops are on to him. It may be so that details remain secret to vet whether informants or suspects know them, to validate their information and distinguish people who possess real knowledge from those who, for whatever reason, want to be falsely involved.
Here, there is nothing about the investigation to explain why this information ought to remain hidden from view. So they’re still investigating? So what? While it’s not entirely clear what investigation remains to be performed, the number of people killed by police bullets rather than the shooter’s bullets won’t compromise anything.
Instead, the failure to disclose information in hand gives rise to an unpleasant smell. If there is no harm to be done by disclosure, then disclose. If there is no disclosure, why not? If there is no disclosure, what are they concealing and why?
So when he said that some of the victims might have been killed by the cops, he presumably knew specific numbers to that point. The medical examiner has had a final count of how many victims were killed in the cross-fire since Tuesday.
None of that minimizes Mateen’s guilt for setting off the melee. It just is a data point that the cops know, but aren’t yet revealing, how many people the cross-fire killed.
While it may not minimize the shooter’s guilt for what he did, it is more than just a data point. It is a reflection of the introduction of selective information, cherry-picked news to offer for public consumption and cherry-picked news to conceal. If the cops did nothing wrong, what do they have to hide? Maybe nothing. Maybe they just don’t trust the public enough to understand that in a situation such as this, people will die one way or another, and death by cop bullet was the unavoidable right choice.
To the victims, their families, there is no meaningful distinction between dying at the hand of the shooter or at the hand of the cops. Dead is dead. A bullet from one gun kills like the bullet from another. Every death, every wound, matters. And had the shooter not started the massacre, the police would not have been there returning fire. It is the shooter’s fault.
Yet, it is fair to question whether the police response was appropriate, if only to determine whether all the military equipment, all the SWAT gear, all the training, all the explanations and excuses, all the appeals to trust the police because they know what they’re doing, are true. Maybe the cops weren’t perfect. Maybe they were. Maybe not a single person in Pulse died because of a “good” bullet rather than a bad one. Who knows?
Well, the government knows. And the fact that they are withholding that information from the public suggests they don’t want us to know, which further suggests that they didn’t do a very good tactical job of it. The government loves telling us about the great job it does. When it screws up, not so much. By concealing this available information, and hiding behind the lame excuse of this being an “ongoing explanation,” they raise questions about their performance.
Maybe the cops did a great job here. But concealment makes it smell, whether it deserves to or not. And there’s just no reason for it. If the failure to disclose is based on fear that the public is too clueless to grasp that crossfire could do harm to innocent victims, then educate us. But if you conceal from us, then we are left with no choice but to assume the worst.