AD Main Menu

Our view: Not good enough

The Anchorage Police Department reports that the state Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals has concluded that the fatal police shooting of Harry Smith in July was justified. Case closed?

Not quite.

Too many questions remain about this shooting. APD still hasn't explained exactly what happened. The assistant district attorney who reviewed the police investigation of the shooting says he can't explain what evidence led to his conclusion that it was justified.

Trust us, this man had to die, is not an adequate answer. Especially not in the third case of a fatal shooting by authorities this year.

This is no way for a police department to do business. The police work for the citizens of Anchorage. They are accountable to us. When they employ the power we've given them to use deadly force, they must be able to explain exactly why and how.

In the most recent case, Anchorage residents should expect the following, at least:

• Police should already have released a detailed narrative of the police actions that led to the shooting of Harry Smith. They need to do it as soon as possible.

• They should immediately release the recording of the dispatch call, the contents of which are very much in dispute. Harry Smith's son, Russell, has said repeatedly that he told the police dispatcher in his 911 call that his father was suicidal, had mentioned "suicide by cop" and had a BB gun. He also says he "loudly" told police at the scene that his father had a BB gun. Police have said only that a recording of the 911 call does not include any mention of a BB gun. This is a dispute that can easily be resolved, and should be.

• We should have a written report summarizing the evidence of the police investigation and the basis for prosecutor Clint Campion's conclusion. What we have now is a matter handled inside a closed and excessively secretive system. As things stand, once Mr. Campion makes his decision, the matter is officially settled and no further questions will be entertained.

In a case where the government has ended someone's life, that's just not sufficient.

The Daily News has filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain some of these details about the investigation and its conclusion. That shouldn't have been necessary.

Anchorage police do a difficult job in a community that largely gives them the benefit of the doubt. Why? Because over the years our police have earned it. But that benefit of the doubt is not a birthright or a blank check; it can be squandered by an unwillingness to be transparent and publicly accountable.

The Smith shooting is the second controversial fatal shooting by police this summer. For many citizens, too many questions remain unanswered. Did police move too fast to subdue Harry Smith? He was in his own fenced backyard, he hadn't fired a shot, he may have been drunk, and he was suicidal, according to his son. How urgent was it to confront him with a life-and-death choice?

We hew to the old Reagan maxim: "Trust but verify." Unfortunately, APD and the law department are unwilling to allow that. We don't know the answers to the questions the shooting raises but we do know that the questions are valid and important, and citizens are entitled to the answers.

All this leads to another question: Is it time to consider a citizen board to review cases of fatal police shootings? Should a panel of respected community leaders -- unaffiliated with law enforcement agencies -- review the facts in a case like this and give their own opinion of police conduct? Such a panel could put the "verify" in "trust but verify."

Regardless, beginning today, it should be standard practice, in the aftermath of police shootings, for police to produce a written report that describes the sequence of events, lists the evidence produced in its post-shooting investigation and explains the basis for a conclusion that the shooting was justified.

That is not too much to ask.

BOTTOM LINE: Conclusion on fatal shooting leaves questions unanswered.