Case illustrates wisdom of sunshine law
November 24, 2005
This week, after months of legal wrangling, the town of Carbondale released police records about a 1995 incident involving police officer Jose Munoz. Interestingly, instead of showing Munoz to be an errant, “rogue” cop, they actually humanize him.In fact, we’re mystified as to why the town spent so much time and effort trying to hide these documents from public view.First some background: Officer Munoz found himself at the center of a controversy in summer 2004, after he used a Taser six times on a Carbondale man who had failed to stop at a stop sign. The incident raised legitimate questions about Munoz’s conduct and temperament.But when the Valley Journal newspaper sought to review the 1995 incident as part of Munoz’s work history, the town refused. The paper took the matter to court.This month, a judge directed the town to release the results of an internal investigation into the 1995 incident. Munoz was accused of using “excessive force” on a resident; the investigation substantiated the complaint and Munoz was disciplined. Until this week, that’s all the public knew about what happened in November 1995.Here’s what the documents revealed. Munoz and another officer on duty walked into a saloon one night and Munoz began speaking with a patron in Spanish. Another man then entered the conversation, telling Munoz to “speak f—ing English.” Munoz then grabbed the man, by the hair with one hand and by the throat with the other, and told him off.That’s about the extent of it. The man apologized. And, after collecting himself, Munoz apologized to the man.For this, Munoz was suspended for a day. He was told at the time that he lost his composure and must never use force except under “reasonably necessary” circumstances – to arrest a combative person, to defend himself, or to protect others’ life and property.Clearly, Munoz failed to control his temper and went too far. His behavior was unacceptable for a policeman. On the other hand, it’s understandable why Munoz would react to a rude, unprovoked and apparently racist remark. The report paints a picture not of an out-of-control cop, but of a human being who took offense to an ethnic slur.What was the town of Carbondale trying to hide?To us, this case illustrates the wisdom of so-called sunshine laws, which with certain exceptions make the records of government agencies open and available to the public. We only wish public agencies and public servants would abide by these laws willingly, without added pressure from newspapers and residents.