Shawn Vestal: Secrecy surrounding shooting of dog suspicious

WEDNESDAY, AUG. 13, 2014

When cops shoot human beings, they are named publicly within days.

This is as it should be. We grant police officers extraordinary authority, not the least of which is the right to carry and use guns. When they do so, the level of public scrutiny should be high and early. Even as larger questions are investigated, the initial facts should come out early – not late and after a bunch of massaging – and the process of evaluating those facts should, as much as possible, unfold in a manner that the public can examine.

Should it be different for cops who shoot dogs? Should basic, initial information considered public under the law be withheld? To be more specific: Should an extraordinary, even unique level of secrecy be extended to the cop who shot Arfee the black lab in Coeur d’Alene?

Of course not. Dumb questions, easy answers. A harder question is: Why don’t the folks at Coeur d’Alene’s City Hall get this?

The number of irregular steps the city has taken with regard to the investigation of the officer’s shooting of Arfee is significant and – in the absence of more concrete information – suspicious. The officer’s name has been kept a secret for 35 days, even as the chief has acknowledged the officer has been reassigned to desk duty. Instead of having the incident investigated by an outside agency, the CPD is investigating itself – but then turning it over to a review board it will help select. The city attorney’s office has refused to turn over initial incident reports.

If Coeur d’Alene officials are trying to make people think there’s something rotten in this case, this is the way to do it.

In case you missed it: An unnamed officer shot Arfee through a partially rolled-down van window on July 9. In a public misstatement on the level of Otto Zehm’s mythical lunge, the initial public statements from CPD claimed the dog was a “vicious pit bull” – when Arfee was, in fact, a 2-year-old black lab, one that many news outlets could not resist describing as “adorable.”

The Spokesman-Review has filed requests for initial officer’s reports in the case under Idaho state law – the kinds of records that are clearly meant to be, and almost always are, available to the public before final investigations are complete. In this case, the request for copies of the initial incident was denied without comment, and with oblique references to Idaho law in the case of ongoing investigations. I’m not the one asking for these records, but I’m glad to know the newspaper has doubled down in return, and has let the city of Coeur d’Alene know that it will sue to get the records if it has to.

By what logic does the CPD justify keeping the identity of Arfee’s shooter a secret? One suspects the least justifiable rationales imaginable – public relations and legal liability. The shooting of Arfee has been very controversial; a lot of ire has been directed at the department from all over the country, including death threats, the department says.

The police chief has emphasized that Arfee’s shooter feels very bad about all this. Perhaps, city officials think, these bad feelings override the public records law or the public’s interest in having a clear, responsive, honest accounting of what happened that day. Or perhaps they feel that the officer must be protected from Internet threats and the intense passions that the case has incited. Or maybe they foresee that the city might get sued by someone other than the newspaper – Arfee’s owner. Perhaps it’s covering its butt, in terms of legal liability.

All of these would be lousy excuses, if anyone were bothering to make them. As the secrecy drags on, lush shadows of suspicion flourish. If the city won’t release the incident report, isn’t there a reason to grant at least a little credibility to suspicions that there is something funky in that report? Did someone try the “vicious pit bull” description in the written report? And what about the shooting itself?

Questions, questions. Not all can be answered right now, of course, but answering none of them is a horrible way to go.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman. com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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