Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Moore police won't identify people shot by officers, refuse to release incident reports

Moore police shot two people last week -- one fatally -- but the department won't release their names or the reports on the separate incidents, The Oklahoman reports this morning.

At this point, Moore police officials aren't telling the public much about the shootings. A 17-year-old was driving a stolen car a week ago when he tried to elude officers. He was shot in the stomach when he left the car and tried to run. The Oklahoman reports that police won't say if he threatened officers, if he was armed or why they shot him.

We also don't know much about the fatal shooting on Friday. Police got a call about a suicidal man, found him driving on Interstate 35, and chased him. He was shot when the pursuit ended. How did the pursuit end? Did he have a gun? Why did officers shoot him? Officials won't say.

Police Capt. Todd Strickland said the 17-year-old will never be identified by the department because he is a minor.

That policy and reasoning are unacceptable. We don't live in a society in which police may shoot somebody and keep the name secret simply because the person is under age 18. Instead, that should be even more reason for the name to be made public.

Strickland said the department won't release the name of the man fatally shot Friday because his relatives haven't been notified. More nonsensical reasoning from the Moore Police Department.

The Open Records Act doesn't require notification of relatives before police can identify a person shot and killed by officers. What if the man has no next-of-kin, or police can't find them? His identify just remains a secret? That's absurd.

Strickland also refused to identify the officers involved in the shootings. They've been placed on administrative leave while the shootings are investigated, Strickland said.

A public agency may keep secret the names of employees placed on paid administrative leave if, under the agency’s personnel policies, that action doesn’t constitute "a 'final' or 'disciplinary' action, nor a 'final disciplinary action resulting in loss of pay, suspension, demotion, or termination,'" Edmondson said in a 2009 opinion. (2009 OK AG 33, ¶ 29)

But once the investigation is complete and a final disciplinary action occurs, "the record(s) indicating that action must be available for public inspection and copying," he said.

Edmondson noted that the Open Records Act does not mention "administrative leave with pay." That oversight should be rectified by legislators next year.

In Moore, even if police officials determine that no disciplinary action should occur, the names of the officers should be made public as part of the incident reports -- which the department is refusing to release.

Strickland told the newspaper it's against department policy to release the incident reports.

That policy contradicts the state Open Records Act, which says the department "shall make available for public inspection ... A chronological list of all incidents, including initial offense report information showing the offense, date, time, general location, officer, and a brief summary of what occurred." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.8(A)(3))

Department policy doesn't get to trump the public's right to know. Or, particularly in this case, the need to know. (2006 OK AG 35, ¶ 29)

Yes, the public needs to know what happened. Being open in these situations also benefits the Moore Police Department. Being secretive to the point of violating state law sends the message that the department has something to hide. That undermines public trust in the department. It's also unfair to the officers involved.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

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