The saga of Arfee, the black Lab mix killed by a Coeur d’Alene police officer, has been a source of agitation for nearly two months, partly because the public was left in the dark. A little sunlight would’ve gone a long way, but a combination of Idaho’s public disclosure laws and officials’ defensiveness prevented that.
The incident occurred July 9. Until Friday, very little information had been released, and some of that was inaccurate. What was known sparked national interest.
Officer David Kelley, unnamed until Friday, was responding to a suspicious vehicle call. As he and a police trainee approached the van, a dog lunged at him through a partially rolled down window. Kelley responded by shooting the dog, which died from the wounds. The officers removed Arfee from the van and left a business card with contact information. Arfee’s owner returned to the vehicle to find the business card and some blood, but no dog.
Initially, the police issued a news release identifying Arfee as a pit bull. And then another correcting that mistake. After that, the public uproar was met with tight lips.
On Friday, the Deadly Force Review Board issued a report concluding what many people suspected. The shooting could’ve and should’ve been avoided. There were alternatives to the drastic, irreversible action chosen by Kelley. He should’ve backed off and thought it through. An internal police department review and an outside review by a member of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission concurred.
Kelley violated the Coeur d’Alene Police Department’s use-of-force policy. He also failed to turn on his police camera, an act that might’ve offered a clear view of the unfolding scene.
So what now? None of your business, says Idaho law, which offers a broad public disclosure exemption for law enforcement officers. If a police officer doesn’t consent to releasing disciplinary information, it remains under wraps.
Sadly, the legislators that allowed that public records exemption were blind to the ramifications. A public held at bay for two months isn’t going to be mollified by secrecy.
Contrast this with Washington, where the public can learn about the punishment of police officers. For example, the Spokane police officer whose daughter shot herself with his department-issued pistol was suspended without pay for three months. We also know it was the 16th time Officer Barry O’Connell had faced an internal investigation. We know this, because state law doesn’t forbid us from knowing.
Police misconduct is obviously a matter of public interest. The Otto Zehm case drove that home in Spokane, and the issue has flared in communities across this country. It isn’t enough for departments to say mistakes were made. They need to show how officers are held accountable.
The Arfee tragedy shows once again that sunshine is better than a festering wound of public mistrust.
Local journalism is essential.
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