September 27, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Public has right to know park rangers’ identities

 

“All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA and to usher in a new era of open government.”

That’s President Barack Obama at the outset of his first term, commenting on the Freedom of Information Act and transparency in general. At the time, we wrote an editorial praising him for what seemed like a refreshing commitment to accountability. But the feds’ handling of a shooting involving two U.S. Park Service rangers at a Kettle Falls campground is the latest example of how the “open” era has remained shut.

On Sept. 14, the rangers confronted Casey Hartinger, 43, on a houseboat and he was shot for reasons that remain unclear. Documents suggest Hartinger could possibly face assault charges, but because he hasn’t been arrested, the paper trail is thin. Meanwhile, a controversy continues over whether the shooting was an overreaction to a noise complaint. Friends and relatives of Hartinger also say children were dangerously close to the encounter.

The U.S. National Park Service isn’t saying much of anything, and it refuses to name the two rangers.

Most law enforcement agencies would’ve released the names within 72 hours of the incident. That’s the policy for the Spokane Police Department and the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. The Washington State Patrol is helping with the investigation, but it won’t name the shooters because they belong to another agency.

If a 2005 shooting at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon is any indication, the Park Service won’t be naming the rangers soon. In that incident, two rangers fatally shot a camper, but their names weren’t released for two years, long after they were cleared of wrongdoing, according to an Associated Press article.

Sounds familiar. In the Kettle Falls case, the Park Service says it is conducting an internal investigation into possible misconduct but that the findings would remain under wraps. The media could end up discovering and printing the names without the agency’s help, but the lack of cooperation is appalling.

In the Crater Lake shooting, the agency only released the names after gaining the approval of the rangers. This policy reflects warped priorities that impede accountability. It’s the public’s interest that ought to be paramount, not that of a particular agency or its employees.

Have the rangers been involved in other shootings? Have they faced disciplinary action before? Are they exemplary or problem employees in this job and in previous ones? Those are all relevant questions that cannot be answered without knowing their names. Blocking their release merely heightens suspicion.

Last year, a Scripps Howard analysis found that the Obama administration’s record on responsiveness to public records request was worse than the Bush administration’s. Back in February, President Obama boasted, “This is the most transparent administration in history.”

Actually, it’s just more of the same disregard for open government.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.


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