A reporter wants information; a public agency doesn’t want to provide it.
Sometimes we work it out, often with the help of a decision from the state Records Committee that arbitrates such disputes. Sometimes the standoff ends in court, with an expensive, protracted legal fight. It’s a common conflict — part of the role journalism plays in a democracy.
On Thursday, the front page of The Salt Lake Tribune carried a story that was the result of another process — a compromise that saved taxpayers, and the paper, a lot of money and time.
The story, by Tribune reporter Jessica Miller, focused on Ogden’s report of what went wrong the night of Jan. 4, 2012, when Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force officers served a warrant at an Ogden home.
When the gun smoke cleared early the next morning, one officer was dead and five others were seriously wounded, as was the subject of the warrant, Matthew David Stewart. Some 16 months later, Stewart took his own life while in jail awaiting trial for the fatal shooting.
Obviously, this police action went horribly awry, and the public deserves to know how mistakes were made and, in the aftermath, what was done to ensure the tragedy never is repeated.
That was our intent in filing an open-records request with Ogden for the report. City officials, in turn, argued that internal reviews were an invasion of privacy of the officers and their families. Many of those men had suffered traumatic injuries that night.
Ogden is one of several Utah cities that doesn’t include the state Records Committee in its open-records process. Once a decision is made by those cities’ records boards, the only recourse is a legal battle in state court.
As an aside here, I would argue that the Utah Legislature should remedy this situation, and require all municipalities go through the state panel. That body has experience and expertise with open-government law that the individual cities and towns don’t have. What’s more, it would bring needed uniformity to the process.
When The Tribune was rejected by Ogden’s records committee, we sued. Then our attorney, Michael O’Brien, approached Ogden Deputy City Attorney Mara Brown about simply sitting down and seeing if The Tribune and Ogden law enforcement officials could find common ground.
Eventually we did. Ogden released a summary of its report that answered The Tribune’s questions but withheld the officers’ names.
Miller and her editors got what they wanted: an explanation of what happened that night and what reforms followed. We dropped the lawsuit.
Miller’s story detailed the missteps, which the review attributed to law enforcement complacency. Team members were not adequately briefed on what they might encounter that night. A standard "pre-surveillance" of Stewart’s home was never done. Some of the officers didn’t carry enough ammunition. Some weren’t carrying their assigned radios, so communication was compromised.
Several officers didn’t wear bulletproof vests, including agent Jared Francom, who was killed. One officer was recovering from recent surgery and should not have been there because of his physical limitations.
Ogden Police Chief Mike Ashment detailed the dozen changes his department has implemented on how these sorts of operations are handled in the future. Among them: All participants will wear protective "full entry gear" before going into a home, and supervisors now are required to check equipment before proceeding.
This is information that needed to be made public. It is our job at The Tribune to fight for its release.
In this instance, we found city and county officials willing to sit down and figure out a resolution to our differing points of view.
This spirit of compromise is refreshing and all too rare. In the end, it served the public interest.
Terry Orme is The Tribune’s editor and publisher. Reach him at email@example.com.
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