It’s almost become routine that we’re numb and just shrug at the loss of life. We don’t expect Congress to pass meaningful gun-control measures because one house of Congress and the executive branch are both now controlled by NRA-backed Republicans.
There’s nothing wrong with the NRA pumping money into the campaigns of members of Congress, who will do its bidding and there’s nothing wrong with members of Congress accepting that money. That’s how the system works. It’s legal.
But this isn’t about pitting one political party against another or the need for Americans to let their voices be heard that this senseless slaughter of innocent people must end.
Rather, it’s about a government official deciding upon himself to thumb his nose at the law. On Sunday, the day after 36-year-old Seth Ator killed seven people and wounded 22 in Odessa, Texas, the city’s police chief, Michael Gerke, refused to disclose his name for media covering the horrific story. Gerke said he wasn’t going to give the shooter any notoriety, which is ironic since the police department identified Ator later that day on its Facebook page, and Ator was dead.
Unfortunately, the media, and anyone else who wanted to know the killer’s name, had to jump through unnecessary hoops to get the information, even though Texas law is clear that the name of the perpetrator in a crime is a matter of public record.
We’ve seen this before, particularly from law enforcement agencies, all across the country.
When I was publisher of a newspapers in eastern Iowa, a local police officer was involved in a shooting that killed a woman. He was wearing a body camera and we sought the video of what he captured on his camera as well as the recording of the 911 call. Government refused to provide anything except a 12-second clip of the body camera video, despite the county attorney absolving the police officer of any wrongdoing.
Iowa law is clear that the name, date, time and place and specific cricumstances surrounding an incident are public records. Government decided it would determine that a meaningless portion of the body cam video constituted abiding by the state law.
We disagreed and took our cause for public disclosure to the Iowa Public Information Board, then a new state agency created to be an independent arbitor of public records disputes. (Full disclosure: I was a member of the Iowa Newspaper Association and Iowa Freedom of Information board that worked with lawmakers and then Gov. Terry Brans-tad for six years to create the agency.)
Through compromise, the agency was flawed from the outset. Its membership includes three representatives from the media, three from government and three from the public - all appointed by the governor.
We ultimately lost our challenge. Government and public representatives on the board sided with government - which wasn’t a surprise to me.
We eventually gained access to the entire video because it was evidence in a civil suit brought by the family of the victim. On the released video, the officer who did the shooting is heard saying to his partner, “Oh, my God, no! Oh, (expletive), Tim! (Expletive), Tim! I’m (expletive) going to prison, Tim!”
Before the civil suit and the release of the video, I was a panelist at a public forum hosted by the Des Moines Register on government transparency. Someone in the audience asked me if I would be satisified if government showed just me the video and didn’t release it to the general public. I said I wouldn’t. I believed the video to be a public record accessible to anyone. I didn’t deserve any special treatment.
In another instance, when I was publisher of a newspaper in Kansas, our paper and several others from across the state conducted a public-record’s audit to determine statewide compliance with Kansas’ public-records law.
We each recruited several citizens in our communities who we knew were unfamiliar with public-records custodians.
For local governmental bodies subject to the state’s sunshine laws - county boards, sheriff’s offices, city governments, local police departments and public schools - editors selected a clear public record for that citizen to go to the record custodian and request a copy.
We coordinated our audit so each requester was to go to the designated public record custodian at the same time on the same day. We didn’t want records custodians on one side of the state alerting their colleagues on the other side of what was happening, should they detect that.
One of the people I selected was to go to the county sheriff’s office and ask for a copy of a recent accident report. It was about an accident that we had already published in the newspaper.
At the appointed time, the person went to the clerk in the sheriff’s office to seek the report.
The clerk questioned why he wanted it, which under the law is none of the clerk’s business.
He responded to the clerk that he didn’t think he had to answer that question and added that he believed the accident report was a public record.
The clerk barked back: “Nothing in this office is a public record!”
That line was the lede paragraph in the top story each of the paper’s published after we compiled the ressults of the audit and a handful or journalists did their reporting on our findings.
A week later, I ran into the county sheriff who said to me, albeit sheepishly, that had the clerk known the requester was from the newspaper, he would have received the record.
I responded that it shouldn’t matter. The record is public, which is sometimes lost on the custodians of records.
A public record is a public record, whether it’s a government video of a shooting on a public street or the name of a mass murderer in Texas.
We don’t get to pick which laws to follow. Government doesn’t either, though some, like the police in our case and the chief in Odessa, think they can.
While I’ve been here only a couple months, I don’t sense that will be a concern here. Guthrie County law enforcement understands the public had a right to know and government has an obligation to disclose public information, their personal sentiments notwithstanding.
It is, after all, the law.
Readers can email Editor-Publisher Steve Delaney at email@example.com
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