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HOW WE SEE IT: Secrecy Undermines Trust

March 4, 2010 at 5:01 a.m.

— There are those in Bella Vista and elsewhere who are anxious - and understandably so - to learn exactly what happened the night of Jan. 20, when Bella Vista Police Cpl.

Coleman Brackney shot and killed 41-year-old James Patrick Ahern.

Six weeks have passed, and police remain tightlipped about the details. We know that Ahern led Brackney on a car chase, that there was slight contact between their vehicles, and that there were multiple shots fired (according to witnesses interviewed by this newspaper). That’s about all we’ve been told.

and the Bella Vista Police Department are conducting separate investigations into this incident. Benton County Prosecuting Attorney Van Stone said last week that he had asked the state police to seek further forensic testing toensure that he has as much information as possible before issuing a ruling on the case.

“While all involved recognize the need for an expedited investigation, the additional testing is necessary to ensure a thorough and complete investigation, which will enable my office to make an informed decision once the investigation is complete,” Stone stated in a news release.

It’s the right thing to do. Though it would be nice to get answers right this minute, we trust that Stone is exercising appropriate diligence. Accuracy outweighs speed, especially when it comes to a matter as sensitive as this.

Not everyone sees it this way, however. Numerous concerned citizens have contacted this newspaper about the shooting, wondering why the investigations are taking so long. Conspiracy theories have been hatched; some folks view the delay as evidence that officials are concocting a way to cover up wrongdoing on Brackney’s part. Some have even suggested that this newspaper conduct its own investigation.

First, a deep breath is in order.

Second, as it relates to the newspaper’s role: It would be improper - not to mention futile - for reporters to attempt an investigation at this point.

Relevant materials, such as video from the police car’s dashboard camera, cannot even be accessed until the police complete their investigation. This is spelled out under a specific exemption for ongoing criminal investigations in the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Forensic test results are still being done. The police must be allowed to do their work before the media can do much of anything.

As for the length of this investigation, it is by no means unusual. Though some police shootings take only days to investigate, others take weeks and even months. The December 2008 shooting of a man by Pea Ridge police officer John Langham, for example, took four months to examine (the use of force finally was ruled justified). Let’s give those investigating the Ahern case time to do their jobs and mine the truth of what happened that January night.

All this having been said, we should acknowledge that if the public is uneasy about how the Ahern case is being handled, then the Bella Vista Police Department deserves much of the blame. In the shooting’s aftermath, Police Chief Ken Farmer was indefensibly slow to release even the most basic facts of the incident - including the officer’s name, which was withheld from the media for more than four days. This secrecy created the impression that police were trying to hide something. It should come as no surprise if that impression has persisted to this day and grown worse.

Opinion, Pages 5 on 03/04/2010

Print Headline: HOW WE SEE IT: Secrecy Undermines Trust

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