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Sat., Aug. 28, 2010

Editorial: Delaying information on tragedy ill-advised

It is such a sad and strange story.

Sad, because a beloved pastor, widely known plant farmer and Spokane Valley businessman was killed late Wednesday night at his nursery by a Spokane Valley police officer driving an unmarked police car.

Strange, because as of this morning not much more is known than that.

What prompted W. Scott Creach, 74, to grab his pistol and investigate his property? Why was an unmarked police car parked on his premises? Did the officer call first? What caused the officer to pull the trigger? What is the officer’s name?

Law enforcement leaders tell us that officers don’t get special treatment. Some tell us that they ought to be held to a higher standard. But the rules are clearly different when one of them is involved in a fatal incident. It is department policy to forgo an interview with an officer for the first 48 hours. Policy also dictates that an officer not be named for the first 72 hours.

That’s why the details are sketchy. But Spokane police Maj. Scott Stephens said no further information will be released until next Thursday, which is more than a week after the incident. This only raises more questions. When will the shooter be interviewed? Will he or she be named once the 72 hours has passed? If not, what’s special about this case? What about witnesses? Are there any witnesses?

It is not unusual for police to conduct interviews, name suspects and release far more details in the first few days when an officer is not involved in a shooting or is the victim of a shooting. It is rare to wait more than a week.

In a statement released Friday, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich cautioned that “the lives of all involved will never be the same.” That’s true in all fatal shootings. He also asked that the public refrain from speculation, but it’s the absence of information and the duration of official silence that fuels the guesswork.

The Spokane Police Department is leading the investigation as part of an agreement with the Sheriff’s Office to avoid conflict-of-interest charges. That change, implemented in 2007, was smart because it directly addressed the public perception that such cases get whitewashed. But this information lockdown has the opposite effect.

Knezovich says the public will be apprised when “all of the facts surrounding this incident are known.” (The Sheriff’s Office is under contract with Spokane Valley to provide law enforcement.) This isn’t how information is normally disseminated by his office or any other law enforcement agency. The standard procedure is to release the facts as they are learned, because it is impossible to know when they will stop emerging. That’s as it should be if the public is to be properly informed.

The timely release of information is particularly important in a case like this, because it engenders trust that law enforcement is working for that public, not itself.

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