Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Public safety

DeWitt: Public deserves a full accounting when officers fire fatal shots

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Maybe the message is finally getting through to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office:

The matter of law enforcement officers shooting and killing residents is a big deal in this country right now.

When it happens, the public wants enough details to determine whether deputies or police officers were within their rights — or whether, as has been shown in several recent cases across the nation, they might have been a little trigger-happy.

What's more, the public deserves details. Not every scrap of evidence, but enough to explain why law enforcement officers, who are sworn to protect lives, resorted to taking one.

It shows respect for the victim and it shows respect for taxpayers who foot the ever-growing bill to finance our Sheriff's Office.

If that doesn't convince Sheriff Al Nienhuis — and it hasn't in the past — maybe this will: Transparency is in his interest.

Based on the most recent shooting by Hernando deputies last week, it seems Nienhuis might finally be realizing that Florida's tradition of open government isn't a nuisance, which is how he usually has treated it, but a tool that can help rebuild the crumbling public trust in law enforcement. Followed to its spirit, it can assure the public that it has the whole truth about controversial cases.

Such as the one last week.

In case you missed it, which would be understandable given the scant amount of information initially released, Deputy James Devorak and Sgt. Gisele Dunn responded to a call about a potentially suicidal man at a house in an upscale subdivision of Woodland Waters, north of Weeki Wachee.

We learned from the Sheriff's Office that "several shots were fired" and the homeowner, Joseph Schlosser, 69, was killed.

We learned that Dunn has "advanced de-escalation training" and that one of the deputies tried to use "less lethal means to take the subject into custody."

We didn't learn what those means were or even whether Schlosser had directly threatened the deputies.

In the meantime, the Sheriff's Office sent out a five-paragraph news release about a separate "lengthy investigation" that led to a drug bust that netted "several baggies containing methamphetamine."

Such public relations priorities might seem crazy, but they've long been standard procedure under Nienhuis.

But this time, after the Times continued to ask for more information, the Sheriff Office provided some.

Dunn had first shot Schlosser with bean bags to try to stun him, it said Tuesday. When Schlosser responded by pointing a gun at the deputies, they shot and killed him.

It's not enough. In this case, as in many others, we'll have to take the deputies' word for what happened. No Hernando deputies are outfitted with increasingly common body cameras that would tell a full, impartial story. Only select vehicles are furnished with cameras on dashboards.

But it's a more complete account than we've been provided in the past, and may even be a sign that the public discussion is advancing in the direction that Black Lives Matter has pushed it.

Whatever you may think of this movement, it, or at least its nonviolent majority, has done a service to this country, sending the message that because of the great power granted to law enforcement agencies, they can and should be questioned.

Our respect for law enforcement must be balanced by the realization that when a police officer or deputy kills a citizen, something has gone very wrong. We should demand a reasonable amount of information about these killings, and demand it when they happen, when they are still news, so they don't slip by unnoticed.

Turns out that in many (though not all) police shootings, the more we know, the better we understand the officer's response. Some social media posts, for example, would have you believe that an officer shot an unarmed man in Charlotte, N.C., this week. Obviously, it was important for the police to say that, no, he had a gun.

Schlosser, a white Vietnam veteran, probably won't become a martyr for Black Lives Matter.

That could be a good thing if it means the lesson of his death will reach even people who have been hostile to Black Lives Matter activists.

The opposition's mantra is exactly the one that applies to Schlosser's case:

All lives matter.

Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected]; follow @ddewitttimes.

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