Dan Shearer, editor of the Green Valley News, recently scored a major victory with the local constabulary. In fact, his success is almost unbelievable: He got the Pima County Sheriff’s Department to deliver police reports in a more timely fashion, he secured another detective for local taxpayers and he even got the Sheriff to buy a three more copies of the newspaper!
When he told me he had secured all that, my reaction was entirely unprintable. I was amazed.
It all started with a common editor complaint. The Sheriff’s Department was not releasing reports, claiming (when they bothered to claim anything at all) that these were open cases and still under investigation and, therefore, not subject to open records law. Well, we all know that every case is effectively open until the bad guy is convicted and even then law enforcement can drag its feet. There are two primary reasons for this. First, folks in all professions naturally like to keep secrets. Makes them feel important. Secondly, cops (like the rest of us) are lazy. It’s just easier to say “no” than to do your job.
So Dan complained. Vociferously. First in the form of this column in the newspaper. Then he did so in an email to the Sheriff’s Department command staff. The initial response from Bureau Chief Chris Nanos was encouraging. “Thanks for bringing these issues to our attention,” he wrote in an email. “We will get it right.” …
And you know what? Nanos apparently meant it. He announced that he was adding a detective to the Green Valley bureau. Another chief called to schedule a breakfast meeting. They changed the records-release process. They ordered three copies of the Green Valley News be delivered to command staff in Tucson.
“(The) best part is that during breakfast I had a chance to show them that the paper is valuable to the community, and that we know those we serve,” Dan wrote in an email to me. “I went through several volunteer groups who can help them when they run into people with problems — anything from hoarding to dementia — and they knew of none of them. I think now they consider the paper to be a wealth of information and that we all want the same thing in the end — to serve our community. We’ll no doubt butt heads again, but we’ve started down the a path that’s going to be good for all of us.”
I’m still slack-jawed.
I think Dan was able to win over the command staff of the Sheriff’s Department because he was reasonable, he had specific case law at hand to discuss, and he had a strong, well-articulated point. Law enforcement and the press are both vitally important to a functioning democracy. He communicated that point in a way that got through to the deputies.
His experience is heartening to me personally. I know we could use better relations with our local Sheriff’s Office and I aim to try harder to help deputies do better. If you have lingering trouble accessing public records, say something. Be polite and assertive. Ask for a meeting. Stress your common goals.