Thrust and Parry

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Other members of the city council aren't concerned, either. Councilman Dennis Cahill didn't know the city had sued the Trib and KPNX. Councilman Hugh Hallman was recently elected on a platform that included more openness in city government, but says he isn't distressed by the city's actions in this case.

"People say a lot of things," he says about the mayor and city attorney's warning that the city will keep more information off the record. "There may be a general policy to be more careful about what goes into employees' personnel files, but I don't see a huge chilling effect [from that]."

While city officials are blase about the suit and its implications, the Tribune's Ripley finds Tempe's reasoning "frightening."

"First of all," he says, "it's not about the newspaper. It's about the public's right to know. . . . For any system of democratic government to work, the public has to be able to find out about individual instances of wrongdoing and what was done in those instances. . . .

"Frankly, Tempe's position is unconscionable; they're saying, 'We have a right to secrecy when it comes to any potential wrongdoing by our employees.'"

Tempe's lawsuit is "symptomatic of the view of many officials that obeying the public-records law is not part of their job," says Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a Virginia-based media-rights group. "I don't know how you get around it except for attorney generals and legislators saying, 'Yes, it is so part of your job."

"In a lot of cases, they develop an 'us and them' mentality," Kirtley says. "They think, 'The public won't understand it, the press won't explain it well enough, it will make us look bad, it will be embarrassing,' and so they don't release the information. It's very rare to find a longtime public official who thinks differently."

Ferrin's records turned out to contain nothing worth fighting over.
There is no indication of any serious problems, no past incidents of brutality.

Ferrin's only black marks have come from lying to a superior officer about a court date he missed while on vacation. He also allowed a prisoner to escape. And, on several occasions, he was rude to people he'd stopped for traffic violations.

Alvin Yellowhair has moved out of Tempe. He says he can't even drive through the city without feeling panicky.

Officer Ferrin, according to his attorney, is still "very angry" over Yellowhair's charges. "How would you feel?" his lawyer, Craig Mehrens, says. "You try to be a good officer, you do your duty, and then somebody makes these accusations."

Ferrin remains on duty.
Both men are looking at a long legal fight. Their lives, conceivably, will never be the same, yet Ferrin's employer is acting like nothing has changed.

Doug Bennett, the Trib's reporter, has already heard the unofficial reaction to the verdict.

He says a Tempe police officer recently told him, "I hope you don't think this means you guys can go on fishing expeditions now."

Bennett's response: "I'll be right over with my pole."

Contact Chris Farnsworth at his online address: [email protected]

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Chris Farnsworth