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Sheriff Nienhuis discounts our right to know about two shootings

Sheriff Al Nienhuis didn’t release the names of the two shooters in the two Hernando County homicides last Thursday until late Tuesday afternoon.

Chris Price | Special to the Times (2012)

Sheriff Al Nienhuis didn’t release the names of the two shooters in the two Hernando County homicides last Thursday until late Tuesday afternoon.

In case you missed it, which is quite possible considering the tiny amount of information released, two men were shot and killed in Hernando County last Thursday.

Two homicides. One in Spring Hill, one north of Weeki Wachee. Unrelated but remarkably similar.

The men were shot in homes after arguments. No arrests have been made. Spokeswoman Denise Moloney did assure us last week that "there is NO suspect at large and NO threat to the community."

But until late Tuesday afternoon, the Sheriff's Office didn't release the names of the shooters. Even then, the office didn't say anything about the how or why.

Moloney and Sheriff Al Nienhuis didn't feel the need to explain why they're so sure we are safe, why people who had killed other people were allowed to enjoy their Memorial Day weekend.

Just trust us, they said.

"That's exactly what the people should do — trust us until we give them a reason not to," Nienhuis told me Tuesday morning, adding that the trust is justified by his office's handling of previous cases.

He also said that law enforcement is allowed to withhold some information in active cases, which is true.

But Nienhuis has always withheld as much as possible, more than any other sheriff or police chief I've worked with in 25 years as a reporter.

In December, when a 17-year-old boy allegedly stabbed his mother's boyfriend to death, Moloney sent an arrest affidavit in which every line of description about the incident was blacked out. Look up any recent story about a major crime in Hernando and I'll almost guarantee you'll find the word "declined" — usually several times — as in, the department "declined to say where or how many times (Joseph) Berrios was shot, or whether he had a weapon."

That was in a Times story earlier this year about the shooting of a high school kid by Deputy Ramona Fuhs.

By contrast, the office usually provides plenty of detail about minor drug arrests, and Moloney wrote an extensive release about another death last Thursday — that of Ike, a 4 1/2-year-old German shepherd police dog.

We were even asked to "keep (handler) Deputy Brandon Cox, his family, our K-9 Unit and the entire Hernando County Sheriff's Office in your thoughts and prayers as we mourn the loss of K-9 Ike."

Whether you find this sort of thing moving or mawkish probably depends on how you feel about dogs. But with two people dead, with a matter of real public interest to address, I also found it frivolous and insulting.

Not to mention dismissive of the public's right to know.

This is an agency that receives $38 million of our property tax money. I think it's reasonable to expect that it keeps us up to date about how it's doing its job.

All Nienhuis told me Tuesday morning is that detectives are talking with prosecutors to determine what charges, if any, should be filed in last week's shootings. There are "nuances" here, he said, and he doesn't want to rush his deputies.

Why not tell us about these nuances? Why not explain the circumstances and leave it up to us to determine whether there's any threat.

We in the press can accurately report this information.

The public can absorb it without prematurely assigning guilt or innocence or spreading unnecessary alarm.

Trust us.

Sheriff Nienhuis discounts our right to know about two shootings 05/28/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 28, 2013 6:02pm]
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