Authorities on Friday FINALLY got around to releasing information about the arrest of a Walnut Creek police officer, nearly two weeks after a bizarre incident in which he was picked up in Richmond on suspicion of assaulting a woman with a baseball bat.
I need to ask up front (and I'm sure I'm not the only one asking): Why did it take so long for authorities to make public this attack and the police officer's arrest? I find it concerning, as well as head-scratching.
Haven't police and prosecutors learned better by now? After several decades of high-profile cases that thrust alleged police misconduct (from Rodney King to Oscar Grant to Michael Brown) into the center of national debate about race and police/community relations, it's hard to believe that law enforcement agencies around here would still think they could perhaps sweep something like this officer's arrest under the rug -- or at least keep it out of the news for as long as possible.
It's especially mind-bogging given how we're in the midst of yet another agonizing national discussion about police accountability and unequal justice in Ferguson, Missouri. Many journalists and other observers attribute the outbreak of riots and heightened tensions to the puzzling, scattershot way police disseminated information about the case, notably their delays in releasing Officer Darren Wilson's name and then cherry-picking facts to disclose (the video of Brown stealing cigars) in a way that seemed designed to give police a public relations advantage.
So nearly two weeks after Thompson's arrest, the Marin Independent Journal and Contra Costa Times reported that Thompson, a 53-year-old, 30-year veteran of the Walnut Creek police, was arrested in the early morning hours of August 16.
At about 2 a.m., police received several 911 calls about a woman screaming and a possible masked man with a bat.
The woman said she had run out of gas and was walking when she was confronted by a man wearing a mask when he hit her with a baseball bat, Richmond police Capt. Bisa French told reporters. The assailant also used the bat to strike the woman's car. The woman was taken to the hospital for non-life-threatening blows and was expected to recover.
Witnesses directed police to a suspect, who turned out to be Thompson. He had retreated to a nearby car. In the car, police found a bat, a mask, two guns and wrist restraints.
French pointed out that the restraints are similar to those that police often carry with their other work gear. I must say that French's need to make this point about the restraints almost comes across as an apologia on behalf of a member of her police fraternity. She seems to be saying, "Well, of course, any self-respecting off-duty police officer would have wrist restraints in their cars!"But this bit of information also begs the question, is it normal for cops -- off-duty or on -- to also carry around bats and masks?
When confronted by Richmond police, Thompson apparently told them he was one of them. The situation, though, gave Richmond officers enough probable cause to book him into Contra Costa County jail on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon, criminal threats and felony vandalism.
Unfortunately, we don't know what bail amount was attached to those charges. The Contra Costa Times points to the fact that someone in authority -- police, Contra Costa prosecutor Barry Grove, or the jail -- wouldn't release that information. I find this curious because, whenever I covered police cases, as recently as 2011, bail information was readily available, either from the arresting agencies or from the jail. In fact, it's usually takes the punch of a few computer keys to bring up the information.
In any case, Thompson was able to make this undisclosed amount of bail and was released to go back to his Martinez home. His release slowed the case down a bit. If a suspect isn't in custody, the District Attorney's Office doesn't have to quickly pull together charges in order to justify continuing to hold the suspect.
Still, it seems as though prosecutors are taking their time. I'm not sure what's so complicated about the case: Victim says she was attacked by a guy with a baseball bat. She was found with injuries. Police find suspect in a car with weapons involved in said attack.
OK, there could definitely be more to this story. There often is. These could even be facts that would help Thompson's defense. His family apparently owned a house for sale in that Richmond neighborhood.
Grove told the Times that charges won't be coming down for another week or so. However, publicity about this strange case and accompanying themes of unequal justice, police accountability and lack of transparency may prompt Grove and co., we hope, to speed things up a bit.
Whatever other details may emerge, you still have an off-duty cop allegedly going around at 2 in the morning, wearing a mask, and attacking a person with a baseball bat.
Questions of unequal justice come in when you consider the fact that Thompson had the resources to make bail -- whatever that bail was. He'll probably hire a private attorney, and then enjoy the backing of his police union. In the meantime, he gets to keep his job. He was put on administrative leave, but he gets to collect his full salary.
I think its fair to say that if a less resourceful fellow -- a civilian from the community -- had attacked a woman with a baseball bat, he'd still be in jail. And he'd probably lose his job and possibly his and his family's livelihood. There's no way he'd be able to hire a private attorney, or rely on support from a politically powerful professional organization.
I think it's also fair to say that if the suspect had been your regular street thug, the Richmond police would have made that information available to reporters immediately -- not that a bat attack by one of the town's usual suspects would have constituted a big story in a town that typically sees much worse.
But, as always, the rules of disclosure change when the case involves a police officer.
Walnut Creek police certainly weren't in a rush to let their citizens know that one of their officers had been jailed in a bizarre attack. According to the Contra Costa Times, Richmond police notified Walnut Creek police on the day of Thompson's arrest.
So, it appears that the Walnut Creek police have been sitting on this bit of information for some time as well. Walnut Creek Police Chief Tom Chaplin told the Times on on Friday, "We are aware of the arrest of one of our officers." So, why not share this information with the public? Embarrassing for Thompson and for the department? Of course, but that's how it goes.