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In our opinion: Police secrecy troubling when information not released

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 14 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Submitted photo of 21-year-old Danielle Misha Willard, who was killed in an officer-involved shooting Friday afternoon, Nov. 2, 2012, in West Valley City.

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When a police department holds back details in a case involving one of its own officers, it raises questions about the department's motives, and they are questions worthy of a timely response.

A case in point involves the recent shooting of a 21-year old woman from Vancouver, Wash., who was killed after an apparent confrontation with undercover officers from the West Valley City Police Department. In the days after the incident, police have released few details about how the woman, Danielle Willard, was killed. Officers said specifics would only be disclosed after their investigation is complete.

The department may have valid and justifiable reasons to be reticent to release early details, and state law allows police to withhold information if it could jeopardize an investigation or impede a person's right to a fair trial. But in this case, the department has not explained precisely why it chose to delay releasing even rudimentary information, leaving the girl's family desperate for answers about her demise.

We know she died from gunshot wounds to the head, but we know that because the state Medical Examiner — not West Valley Police — disclosed the information. We also know — from the girl's family — that she led a troubled life and was in Utah to be part of a program to help her deal with a long-term problem with drug abuse

Police have not addressed basic questions about the incident, including whether Willard was armed, why officers made contact with her, whether other persons were involved or who exactly fired gunshots, and how many. A police officer was injured in the incident, but just how has not been disclosed.

It is difficult to envision how such basic information could compromise the integrity of an investigation.

In compliance with the Utah Government Records and Management Act (GRAMA), police agencies routinely make available what are known as "initial contact" reports, generated when officers are called to an incident. Such reports usually include at least a cursory explanation of what happened, and who was involved. A lack of such information in this case may lead some to conclude that West Valley City is being extra careful, and extra sensitive, because its own officers are involved.

To that point, there should be no double standard for the investigation of a fatal shooting — regardless of who fires the shots. West Valley City has not demonstrated a similar reticence about releasing basic information in other shooting cases.

To another point, any sensitivity a department may have regarding public perception of its investigative abilities should not weigh into any decisions about how it complies with state records laws. The West Valley City department has been the subject of widespread publicity over its refusal to release records regarding the disappearance of Susan Powell, a case that generated a measure of controversy over how the department handled the investigation into Powell's husband as a possible suspect.

In law enforcement circles, the West Valley Police Department is regarded as professional, competent and dedicated. In the Powell case, officers worked arduously to bring it to a conclusion, and no one is more frustrated by its outcome than the detectives who lived with it every day.

It is always easy to second-guess the split-second decisions police officers make in the field, even those made when the officer's own life is at risk. We trust that a full accounting in the death of Danielle Willard will eventually be offered. But the lack of early disclosure — of even basic facts — only tends to fuel the kind of suspicion and speculation that serves no one well, including the police department itself.

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