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Decisions have not been made?

If you haven’t yet done so, we encourage you to read the letter from Gloria Ash printed elsewhere on this page.

Some will undoubtedly nod heads in agreement as she sternly takes us to task for last week’s article and commentary in which we publically used former Marion officer Lee Vogel’s name for the first time since June’s tragic shooting death of Robb Stewart of Lehigh.

There is much in the letter we could take issue with, both professionally and personally, but we will set those aside to focus on the words Ash wrote that get to the heart of why we chose to write those pieces:

“You do not know the whole story,” Ash said, “and this is the reason why it has not been released by KBI, city police department, and by the county attorney. Decisions are pending and have not been made.”

She’s spot on about not knowing the whole story. Outside of official releases from the sheriff and KBI, the only other source of information about the shooting has come from radio transmissions made that night, transmissions we listened to in real time and reviewed recordings of. What we’ve been told since can be boiled down to one line: “The investigation is ongong.”

But we strongly disagree with Ash that no decisions have been made. They have.

In the absence of a completed investigation, officials have made them, but have remained silent. Many members of the public have made up their minds, too, already content to believe the shooting was justified, though as Ash rightly pointed out, nothing saying so has been released by anyone. No one in the public knows the whole story.

The most critical decision occurred that night, when about 50 seconds after an officer reported Stewart had a gun aimed at him came the report that Stewart had been shot. We don’t know what transpired in that 50 seconds; presumably, that’s what the investigation will reveal.

A curious decision was made right at the outset by KBI. In the past 10 months, KBI has investigated five officer-involved shootings in which multiple law enforcement agencies responded. In four of those, KBI identified the departments of the officers involved. The only one they didn’t was right here in Marion County. Why?

It’s virtually universal practice to put officers involved in shootings on administrative leave and refer them to counseling for support, and those decisions were rightfully made.

What happens after that varies from department to department, but a guide to officer-involved shootings published jointly by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and U.S. Department of Justice has this to say: “Typically officers are placed on a brief paid administrative leave or in a no-contact assignment pending the outcome of the investigation.”

Sheriff Robert Craft’s post-shooting statement that “the officer involved has been placed on administrative leave through his department pending the investigation” seems consistent with that.

Yet weeks before KBI’s declared timeline for concluding its investigation, officials decided Vogel could return to duty, about a month after the shooting. We learned this was going to happen from a member of the public completely disconnected from law enforcement and government, then did our due diligence to independently determine it was so and report it, again without using his name.

What was the rationale, and what information was used to make that decision? Had a determination about the justifiability of the shooting already been reached? A simple, nonidentifying press release stating that after counseling and a review of administrative procedures the officer was being reinstated and that the KBI investigation remained ongoing would have been both appropriate and sufficient.

Then word came down that Vogel had decided to leave the Marion police force, and that Plainville had decided to hire him as an officer, both matters of public record, and both decisions made while investigation was still ongoing.

We don’t question Vogel’s decision to leave — it was surely difficult and very personal. Other officers in other places have chosen to do the same, and in the wake of what we can only assume was a traumatic experience, wanting a fresh start somewhere else is perfectly reasonable.

However, his hiring in Plainville before an investigation was complete again raised questions as to what information officials had and how it was being used out of sight of the public. Why would a city gamble on hiring an officer still under investigation for a shooting, one which has yet to be deemed justifiable? Or were they making decisions with information that’s been withheld from the public?

Ash was right on another count — we are different from big cities. Here, our officers aren’t just uniforms, they’re people who live in a community where anonymity is nearly impossible. People talk, word spreads when something like this happens, and even without official confirmation, within days there were people who knew who fired the shot that killed Robb Stewart.

Some of those have already decided the shooting was justified, that it was a case of “suicide by cop,” as Gloria’s husband, Al, asserted when they dropped her letter off at our office. Others aren’t as certain. They want the information only a completed investigation can provide before they make up their minds.

We fall in the latter camp. We’ve written absolutely nothing about whether we think the shooting was justified or not because that’s not our call to make, and there’s not enough information available to decide reasonably either way.

What we’ve done is to report factual information gleaned through official statements, recordings, and our own research that raises serious questions about what officials know, when they knew it, and how that information is being used to make decisions that impact public safety. Is the public getting information needed to be assured this is being handled the way it should be?

Police chiefs and the Department of Justice have told law enforcement agencies they should be just as concerned about this kind of situation as we are:

“Your department should provide the community with information as appropriate, as much as possible, at each investigative stage,” their guidance on officer-related shootings states. “The timely release of an officer’s name following an (officer-involved shooting) incident serves to enhance public trust in the investigative process, and adds to the transparency and perceived integrity of the investigation. Officers’ names will become public eventually, so it is a matter of when, not if, an agency should release officer names.”

We couldn’t agree more.

It’s entirely possible to provide factual information without jeopardizing investigations. Numerous police departments around the country have recognized this and come forward quickly in officer-involved shootings, and provided updates along the way.

We realize KBI’s involvement adds a unique element to this, but turning over the investigation to them doesn’t preclude collaboration on what can be released and when. KBI and law enforcement are public servants, and a reasonable balance should be struck, weighted toward the public’s right to know. We’ve seen too many examples where we’ve been burned by a government that’s said, “Trust us to do the right thing.” We won’t sit by complacently when decisions are being made that suggest there’s more to the story than “the investigation is ongoing.”

— david colburn

Last modified Sept. 6, 2017

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