Thursday, September 2, 2010

Idaho State Police and the need to know

(Published in the Post Register Sept. 2, 2010)

The Post Register spent the better part of a year and thousands of dollars to gain access to police reports about an incident in which a suspect shot at four Idaho State Police officers (see the story on today's front page).

Why would we bother? The cynic might respond, "To sell papers." It would take a lot of papers at 75 cents apiece to recoup our investment of money and time on this one. No, there's a simpler and less sinister reason: We believe it is your right to know what is in those documents.

The details of this story are reported on today's front page by Joelyn Hansen, so I won't repeat them here. The ISP didn't say anything publicly about the incident until, acting on a tip we had received from elsewhere, a Post Register reporter inquired about it in April of 2009 -- three months after the incident. From that point, information began to dribble out -- some from the ISP, some from the Lemhi County Sheriff's Department, some from other law enforcement sources.

In July of 2009, then-Sheriff Sam Slavin provided some additional details, referring to the shooter as "a man of mystery." Six weeks later, the ISP released the name of the man it said owned the property where the shooting occurred -- Adrian John Hannaford.

Finally, in October of last year, the ISP released more details after the Post Register's request for copies of the written reports on the incident was denied by an ISP attorney. Shortly thereafter, the Post Register appealed that decision in District Court.

That court process took nearly nine months to play out, but in August, the judge ordered a slightly redacted version (some names were blacked out) of the reports to be made public, sealing the decision for 42 days to allow the state to appeal. That time expired last week with no appeal.

The newly released documents fill in some blanks but do not reveal any sort of scandalous behavior or add significantly to the information the ISP had provided late last year. In fact, they raised more questions than they answered, such as:
Why did ISP officers attempt to enter the building without a warrant?

Why, when a suspect fired more than a dozen shots at officers, wasn't this incident immediately made public? Did this inaction put the public at potential risk?

Why did the ISP and the Lemhi Sheriff's Department insist, as late as nearly six months after the incident, that they didn't know anything about the suspect -- including his name -- when the documents clearly indicate otherwise?

Were proper procedures followed, and were any procedural changes made as a result of this incident?

And finally, what is the status of the search for the suspect whose gunfire sent police ducking for cover?
The ISP has a long history of being open and cooperative with the public and the media. When that changes, it raises suspicions. Had the ISP gone public with details of the incident when it happened instead of waiting until the Post Register inquired three months later, this would have been a straightforward story and much time and effort could have been reserved for other pursuits.

Four ISP officers were fired at and at least one said the shooter "was firing at us to kill us." That deserved better handling by the ISP and shouldn't have required court intervention to get the information the public should have known from the start.

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