Every reporter in Arizona who covers courts or cops can tell you horror stories of police departments stonewalling requests for public files, even though a strong open-records law has been on the books since territorial days. The plan for a new statute to keep police paperwork secret is a brazen legislative ploy that follows an unsuccessful six-year fight by law enforcement to hide its reports in the Phoenix Suns drug-use and point-shaving "scandal." The 1987 case is now so old no one remembers that after the Phoenix police chief and the Maricopa County attorney concluded their sensational show bust of professional basketball players, no one went to jail. The real story, contained in the suppressed public record, of how little actual evidence the cops had in the Suns bust, is yesterday's news.
Even though the Arizona Supreme Court last year ordered the police files released to the media, it was too late. The press had won a Pyrrhic victory. Though the press victory was hollow, the cops were nervous enough about the Supreme Court decision that they concluded stall tactics and lengthy litigation were not sufficient. Police associations around the state proposed gutting the open-records law.
We've been told locking up public records is for our own good. We've been told it's to protect citizens who might be afraid of testifying.
We've been told everything but the truth.
"Witnesses could be intimidated from stepping forward if they knew their names would be disclosed in police files," said Lieutenant David Felix, governmental liaison for the state Department of Public Safety, in a front-page explanation carried by the morning newspaper.
This is spin-doctoring. What this legislation protects is bad cops and bad police work.
Because DPS is leading the charge on this questionable bill, let me tell you about a case I covered involving the state police that only saw the light of day because law enforcement files are public record.
On January 28, 1990, Jeffery Dawes, a high school junior, made the sort of stupid decision teenagers are known for. Seeing police lights in his rear-view mirror, he sped off instead of pulling over. When the DPS officers finally caught up with the 17-year-old Dawes, the teenager was shot in the head and killed. The official explanation was that this young boy, barely old enough to drive, died resisting arrest.
Then DPS investigators lurked around the school the slain Dawes had attended in a desperate attempt to link the teenager to drug dealing. The press liaison for the state police leaked vicious rumors about the dead boy to the media, hoping to sully the youngster's reputation.
When I finally got my hands on the public records, I discovered that, according to the officer who shot the teenager, Dawes was not resisting arrest. He had exited his car, had no weapon, had his hands raised in surrender and had his back turned to the officer.
It was a bad shooting, plain and simple.
This obvious fact so alarmed law enforcement investigators that they tried to feed an alibi to the DPS officer who pulled the trigger. Public records revealed this line of questioning of the officer who shot Dawes:
Detective: "So your stress level, at that point, I'm sure the adrenaline is really flowing. Uh, could it have been that, that, uh, due to the stress level of yourself at that point that you, he might have resisted some and you just were not aware of it?"
DPS officer: "That's possible." Given this powder-puff interrogation, are you at all surprised that the DPS officer was not disciplined, let alone indicted, for killing a prisoner in his custody?
Public records further revealed that an autopsy showed no drugs at all in Dawes' body. There wasn't any justification for DPS investigators trying to link the dead boy to drug dealing. It was a clumsy effort to smear the dead boy, nothing more.
The parents of the dead boy retained an attorney and eventually obtained a large financial settlement from the state police. They also insisted upon and received a letter of apology from the director of DPS for his agency's conduct following the shooting.
The same month I wrote about the Dawes shooting, I concluded a five-part series that examined the interlocking roles of the county attorney and the Phoenix Police Department in the Valley's most notorious bar for crack-cocaine transactions, Club 902.