Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wagoner police chief refuses to identify two officers involved in fatal shooting more than a week ago

For nine days, Wagoner Police Chief Bob Haley has refused to tell the public which two of his officers were involved in the fatal shooting of a Coweta man outside a Wagoner fast-food restaurant, the Muskogee Phoenix reported today.

Haley has cited the ongoing OSBI investigation as justification for not disclosing the names, the newspaper reported.

But no provision of the Oklahoma Open Records Act provides for such a delay.

The statute requires that the following information be made public: "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))

I'm told that Haley says he won't release the incident reports because the officers haven't filed one because they were placed on administrative leave following the shooting on Aug. 16.

Haley might be well-intentioned, but his reasoning is nonsensical and an insult to the people of Wagoner.

The statute says "information showing...." It doesn't require that an incident report have been filed.

Regardless of the OSBI investigation, that information is public when it's in the hands of the Wagoner police. No provision of the Open Records Act allows for the information to be redacted.

Certainly the police chief knows which officers were involved. How else could they have been placed on administrative leave? How else could the OSBI be conducting its investigation?

When does Haley intend to release the information? Never? Does he contend that the public is not entitled to the information?

The Open Records Act doesn't let government officials decide when it's time to disclose information that the public is entitled to know.

Oklahoma public agencies and officials have a "duty" to provide prompt, reasonable access to public information. (2005 OK AG 3, ¶ 4)

"There is no provision in the Open Records Act for a public body to 'withhold' records for any amount of time, however small. The duty to provide prompt and reasonable access is complied with only when a public body properly attends to its duty to provide a record," the state Attorney General's Office has said. (1999 OK AG 58, ¶ 11)

So the law doesn't empower the police chief to withhold this information until he deems the time is right. It's public information that should be disclosed now.

Why does Haley not want the public to know this information?

Oklahomans "are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government." (OKLA. STAT. tit. 51, § 24A.2)

The purpose of the Oklahoma Open Records Act is "to ensure and facilitate the public's right of access to and review of government records so they may efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power."

That right to know is stolen from the public when public officials refuse to abide by the Open Records Act. The police chief might not like this law, but he has an obligation to follow it.

And by hiding the names, Haley is making the situation worse by giving the impression that the department and those officers have something to hide. He is doing a disservice to those officers.

It's time to tell the public who the officers are.

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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