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These words are welcome after silent treatment

Here's a change of heart we didn't see coming but welcome nonetheless: Some feds around here are talking about being more open to the people they serve.

No, really.

The U.S. Marshals Service called recently wanting to chat about some criticism the agency took over a shooting that almost wasn't.

Not that the shooting itself almost wasn't. David Sills, a guy they were trying to arrest on outstanding drug warrants Oct. 16, was most definitely shot after he ran into some woods north of Tampa.

Problem was, you, the public, might not have heard a thing about it.

Officials at the Marshals Service put out no news release to say a suspect was wounded by an officer at such-and-such a time and place, or that the incident would be reviewed, the way local law enforcement agencies routinely do when a cop fires and hits someone.

That kind of police policy of public disclosure helps build (sometimes badly needed) trust between the guys with the guns and the people they serve. Being a sworn officer — one of the toughest jobs imaginable — comes with a lot of power: to arrest, to carry that gun, to shoot.

Don't care if a bad guy takes a bullet? Imagine an innocent bystander. Your troubled teenage nephew. Your own neighborhood.

But when a reporter caught wind of the shooting, the Marshals Service was mum. Reporters in Orlando had similar trouble after the death of an inmate at the federal courthouse.

This, we were told, is just the way they do things.

For the record, reporters do not ask about shootings because they want to muck up a pending investigation. Local cops often balance ongoing police work with letting the public know what's going on. Reporters ask because you have a right to know what the guys with the guns are doing. They work for you.

Apparently, folks at the Marshals Service heard that.

This week, officials told the Times they want to be more accessible and are considering releasing information after one of their own is involved in a shooting. (Also this week, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement released its investigation concluding that Deputy U.S. Marshal Keith Vinski collided with Sills in a chase and the deputy's gun went off. Sills recovered. The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office ruled the shooting accidental and justified.)

In a surprising conversation at the federal courthouse, Pete Cajigal, assistant chief with the U.S. Marshals Service Middle District, said the flap over releasing any information was "a learning experience, and we want to do it better."

The Marshals Service is responsible for catching federal fugitives, protecting judges and running the witness protection program, among other things.

"We want you to know what we do because we're really proud of it and we're really good at it," Cajigal said.

And officer-involved shootings? "You do need to know," he said, words reporters do not hear often in federal buildings. Welcome ones.

On the way out I noticed on an office wall George W. Bush's smiling face and another space soon to be filled. I asked Cajigal if the ideas we talked about had anything to do with a change of philosophy up in Washington.

Not at all, he said.

That's okay. Any reason for more openness in government will do.

These words are welcome after silent treatment 11/20/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 21, 2008 5:57pm]
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