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Sheriff's Office and schools need to be open to us — and to you

Before George Zimmerman came along, the man most associated with Florida's lightning rod of a law, "stand your ground," was Trevor Dooley.

And the day after Dooley shot and killed David James in 2010, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office released almost all of the now-familiar story:

The argument over a teenager skateboarding on a basketball court; the fight between James and an armed man (Dooley); the shooting; the fact that James's 8-year-old daughter had seen it all.

The office didn't release Dooley's identity. But its explanation for this — it needed to sort through conflicting statements of many witnesses — seemed reasonable considering all that it had released.

Of course this shooting was not exactly like two fatal ones in Hernando County in May. For one thing, those ultimately were ruled justified, both at least partly because of "stand your ground," while Dooley would be convicted of manslaughter. But it's close enough to show that it's possible to work a messy, high-profile case and still keep the public informed.

It's close enough to show that, in this regard, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office has a long way to go.

I know we've been over this before. But after another virtual news blackout of a shooting last week, I guess we need to go over it again.

Three people were injured, two seriously enough to wind up in the hospital. But as of Friday, we didn't know what these people had been arguing about, didn't know how many of these victims were shot rather than beaten or stabbed. And though the identity of victims is one piece of information that state law does not allow detectives to hold back during open investigations, the Sheriff's Office did just that for more than two days.

I don't buy Sheriff Al Nienhuis's explanation that the case is so complicated that he doesn't know if these people are actually victims. If they're in the hospital, it's pretty clear they're victims of something. I think the real reason for withholding the names was that keeping the press at a distance makes deputies' and detectives' jobs easier, to which I'd say it's probably easier to play basketball if the rim wasn't quite so high. In our culture, public scrutiny is part of the game.

But you know what? I'd be a lot more willing to buy the sheriff's argument if this had been a one-time deal — if the Sheriff's Office didn't make a habit of putting out news releases with large informational gaps and if, generally speaking, the gaps didn't get bigger as the cases get bigger.

I'd be more willing to cut the office some slack if, after a murder suspect had been charged and jailed last year, the office hadn't insulted us by releasing an entirely blacked-out arrest affidavit.

Because all we want from our sheriff is what our Hillsborough co-workers got in the Dooley case — a sign that law enforcement is trying to let people know what it's up to.

We also want this from county schools. And under new superintendent Lori Romano, everything has to go through spokesman Roy Gordon. Often he's late getting back to us. Sometimes he doesn't get back to us at all.

So the two most expensive and, I'd say, important public agencies in the county aren't being particularly open with a quasi-public agency, the press, which I think is pretty important, too.

One of our jobs is to scare people in government, a little bit, anyway. And though Romano and Nienhuis don't agree with me, I get the feeling that they aren't scared in the way officials are in larger media markets, the way they used to be here.

I won't bore you with memories of the old days, but a few years ago there were a lot more news outlets covering Hernando County, more reporters in each of these newsrooms, more pages and broadcast minutes of news.

Much of the competition has slipped away, and now we're mostly just competing for your attention. And I think we might get a little more of it by reminding you that, when public officials keep us at bay, they keep you at bay and when they insult us, they insult you.

Sheriff's Office and schools need to be open to us — and to you 10/25/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 25, 2013 4:37pm]
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