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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A month after Spirit Lake police shot at a blind woman in her apartment, agencies haven’t released basic details on the investigation: ‘This person lost their life, and nobody knows about it’

A sheriff’s deputy walks away from a shooting scene in Spirit Lake Thursday, November 1, 2023.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Kootenai County law enforcement agencies continue to withhold most information surrounding a Spirit Lake police shooting in early November that left a 67-year-old blind woman dead at her senior living complex. The secrecy has led some people to call for more transparency.

“I wish they would come out and say what happened,” said Crystal Utecht, who cared for S.A. Floyd. “I am afraid it will just be swept under the rug.”

Floyd was found dead in her senior living apartment three hours after two Spirit Lake Police officers fired their weapons. Floyd was blind, according to her assistants, and was close to being evicted from her apartment. Officials have not said why police shot their guns or if Floyd had a weapon herself.

There is also no indication as to how she died, causing frustration for some Spirit Lake residents.

The Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office declined to release more details about the shooting.

Floyd was commemorated with a vigil in Boise on Nov. 20.

“I think they should be 100% transparent,” activist Avalon Hardy said prior to the vigil. “If there’s a reason to why, I feel like the community should know what’s going on.”

The police officers involved in a fatal shooting often are identified by their agency – in this case, the Spirit Lake Police Department – within a matter of days or a couple of weeks. That information is typically accompanied by the officers’ rank, work experience, awards and commendations, along with a disclosure that they have been put on paid administrative leave.

The sister agency investigating the shooting – the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office – briefs the public on the details. In this case, those details would include exactly where the person’s body was found, whether the person was shot by an officer, whether the person was armed, what prompted the shooting, whether a weapon was found and whether officers may have tried to defuse the situation.

Hardy urged people to pay attention and spread the news of Floyd’s death.

“I don’t want it covered up. It’s their responsibility. If we don’t talk about it, they won’t talk about it,” she said. “This person lost their life, and nobody knows about it.”

Ty Werenka, another local activist, said the entire incident seems questionable – but the lack of information from law enforcement doesn’t surprise him. It was a struggle to get any records on the death of Zachary Snow, a 26-year-old Boise man who was shot by police, Werenka recalled. The information in many police shootings, Werenka said, seems to trickle out to the public, making it easy for people to forget.

“It provides a strategic benefit to police … More time between the incident and information, the story tends to get lost,” Werenka said. “In (Floyd’s) case, they cited public concern as the reason it took so long to come out and say, ‘We don’t have anything.’ You’d think you’d want to have a meeting immediately.”

The North Idaho Critical Incident Task Force, comprising multiple law enforcement agencies, is activated when an officer fires their weapon. Typically, Kootenai County Sheriff’s Lt. Zachary Sifford said, a few outside agencies that are part of the task force will send detectives to help investigate to avoid a conflict of interest.

Sifford said Spirit Lake police requested an investigation rather than initiating a task force review.

The sheriff’s office has released a timeline of the shooting, but questions still remain within the gaps.

On Nov. 1 at 6:27 p.m., Spirit Lake police officers responded to a senior living apartment complex near Fifth Avenue and Jefferson Street for a mental health call.

At 6:34 p.m., at least two officers fired their weapons.

At 6:47 p.m., a sheriff’s deputy arrived on scene. Neighbors said they saw a SWAT truck and heard officers yelling, “Come out with your hands up. We are just here to help you,” into a megaphone.

Three hours later, at 9:48 p.m., according to the timeline, Floyd was found dead in her apartment.

Janice John, who was Floyd’s neighbor, came home to 12 bullet holes in her apartment.

Kelli Kofoet, a former coordinator of the apartments and assistant to Floyd, said she is unaware if Floyd may have had a gun or other weapon in her home.

Kofoet said Floyd had been written up by management three times in one week for being bothersome, which is cause for eviction. Floyd was trying to find another place to live, but had been fighting with management for years to get things done in her apartment, she said.

“The thing about her – she always wanted it done proper. She wanted certain things to be taken care of. Some did get changed, some didn’t,” Kofoet said. “She felt like she’d always be on them to get anything done. So they just refused to take her calls anymore.”

Kofoet said Floyd could be off-putting and abrupt sometimes – but that’s only because she lost trust in the people around her. Because Floyd was blind, she wanted copies of everything, even if she couldn’t see it, she said. At one point, the management company sent Floyd some documents but didn’t specify what they were. She continued to call them and ask for them to read the documents to her until the management responded, telling Floyd to get her assistants to read it instead. She’d also continually call management throughout the late hours of the night.

“They didn’t want to deal with her,” Kofoet said. “The board told me, ‘If we read it to you, we would have to read it to everybody here.’ I was like, ‘Wait a minute. She’s blind.’ ”

Spirit Lake Senior Center employee Melinda Harden said she is unable to comment on tenant experiences or even Floyd’s experience with the complex because she said it violates a tenant’s right to privacy. Harden declined to speak about the investigation.

The Spirit Lake Police Department denied The Spokesman-Review’s public records request for any officer-worn body camera footage or dashboard camera footage spanning the time of the incident.

Idaho’s Public Records Act allows disclosure exemptions if the release of records would interfere with enforcement proceedings, deprive a person’s right to a fair trial, invade someone’s privacy, disclose a source, disclose investigative techniques, endanger someone’s life or disclose the identity of a party involved in a child abuse investigation. A public records request for the initial police report of the incident would also be denied by Spirit Lake police, said spokesperson Stephanie Orlando.

The Spokesman-Review also has requested the transcript of the 911 call and dispatch report from the sheriff’s office. The request has been denied.

Kootenai County Sheriff Bob Norris later said his office will not be releasing any details about the shooting until the investigation is completed.

The Spokesman-Review has separately filed a public records request with the Kootenai County Coroner’s Office to learn the cause and manner of Floyd’s death .

The office has declined to provide information so far.

Kootenai County Prosecutor Stanley Mortensen said he gives the coroner legal advice on occasion regarding the release of public records, and they “don’t have to follow advice.” He said he is not the person to reach out to if a member of the public believes an agency isn’t being transparent. He declined to comment about what would be the best practice by the coroner’s office for releasing the cause and manner of death.

Betsy Russell, co-founder of Idahoans for Openness in Government and a former Idaho statehouse reporter for The Spokesman-Review, said the only way to settle concern about a tragic event such as a police shooting is for all local authorities to be transparent.

“While there are exemptions from disclosure to allow law enforcement to investigate, there is little reason to leave the community in doubt and in great concern about the actions of their local police,” Russell said. “I believe the Idaho Public Records Act allows for enough information to be released to set minds at ease in a community, even when an investigation is open.

“I have been disappointed to see authorities more reluctant to release any information, even when that lack of info itself is what is causing great concern.”

Spirit Lake police and the sheriff’s office have referred media and public inquiries to each other.

And both agencies have said they aren’t answering questions. It remains unclear which agency will disclose records.

Other counties in Idaho are more open with their public records.

The Ada County Coroner usually releases the cause and manner of death within a few days of an incident. According to Ada County Coroner’s Community Support Specialist Cassie Henderson, the office will release basic information pertaining to a case of high public interest.

“This would include name, case number, pronounced date and time of death, agency handling the case and cause and manner of death, if immediately available,” Henderson said. “It has always been our policy to do a press release of basic information that is available. If the cause and manner are not immediately available and the forensic pathologist needs more time for determination, it will be left as ‘pending.’ ”

The Ada County Sheriff’s Office consistently posts news releases if deaths are part of a police shooting. On Sept. 7, the agency posted a release on its website about a police shooting that day. According to the release, a police officer contracted through Ada County for the city of Star shot his weapon when a suicidal man grabbed a gun and began waving it around. The release described why officers responded to the call, what happened before the man was shot and why police fired their weapons. It also included the man’s cause of death – a gunshot wound to the chest.

University of Idaho College of Law Professor Stephen R. Miller has a focus on state and local governments. He said there can be a lot of ambiguity with Idaho’s public records, and people interpret the law in different ways – which makes it much harder for local associations fighting for more open governments to achieve their goals.

“There’s broad definitions; the exceptions themselves are broad and there’s not a ton of case law on it,” Miller said. “This is an ongoing issue in Idaho.”