Published: Sunday, August 10, 2008
Chapter III: Full Disclosure
Full disclosure: I enjoy writing about cops.
I like discovering what they know about the underbelly of the community. I appreciate them not so much for the car chases and heroics that see them risking life and limb to protect others. There is some of that, to be sure.
But my years covering police have convinced me that much of their job is being mechanics. They tighten the lug nuts when the wheels start to come loose in people's lives, managing problems before they lead to catastrophe. They remind people to slow down, to take responsibility.
Some of their best work is done in conversations that involve a lot of careful listening. I admire cops because their job is about justice, another way of serving truth. The best also know in their bones there is never a wrong time to do the right thing, even if it comes at their own expense.
They also are some of the funniest people on the planet, their humor dark and irreverent, so not all that different from what is found in newsrooms.
Police work also seems to attract a small but worrisome cadre.
A few are bullies. Some are practiced liars. The worst are sanctimonious, convinced that years spent answering 911 calls has imbued them with wisdom that only cops can possess. There is no reasoning with those types.
A few years ago one of The Herald's crime reporters had her car stolen. She was assigned to write about it. The story she told shared the shock and violation she felt waking up in Everett to find her wheels gone.
"Good," a top sheriff's supervisor told her after he read her story. "Now you know what it is like to be a victim."
The truth is that crime reporters get to know victims well.
It's not what you see on TV dramas, where journalists travel in packs and shout inane questions from behind police tape.
Instead, covering ugly stories happens up close, in living rooms with mothers and fathers whose trembling fingers flip through photo albums and brush away tears.
Most reporters learn to manage the special dread that comes from being assigned to knock on some grieving stranger's door, or to place a phone call asking about a family's fresh loss: a soldier, a teenager, a mother, a murder victim.
Journalists plumb grief because of this truth: At some point, nearly everybody wants their loved one's memory honored. Reporters are the people in a community best equipped to tell those stories.
This part of the job is about giving voice to the pain survivors feel, telling the community who we've just lost.
Sometimes reporters try to get answers to questions that rob the grieving of peace.
Journalists have no special authority to demand answers or access. But the federal and state constitutions give all of us equal permission to pry: the reporter, the blogger, the community activist, the crackpot.
Public records laws work on the notion that most people in government are not prone to hiding dark secrets.
A key tool in Washington is the public records act. As laws go, it is less a pit bull than it is a black Lab with a bandana around its neck.
Washington's law was approved by voters during a burst of populism that followed Watergate and other government scandals of the 1970s. The act declares that people in government are not in the best position to decide what the rest of us should know.
It also recognizes the need for secrets in certain common sense areas. Records from active criminal investigations are generally off limits. So are records of the books we check out from the library, locations of archaeological discoveries and student report cards.
There is nothing stealthy about a public records request. To get records focusing on Mylo's death, I had to send off letters and fill out forms. Those letters became public records, too, so I knew that police and others would soon be alerted.
The nature of Mylo's case also guaranteed authorities would be paying attention.
When somebody dies in police custody in Snohomish County, the investigation is assigned to a special team of detectives drawn from different police departments, including the agency most directly involved.
The mix is needed, officials say, because each police-involved death must be investigated simultaneously, and in triplicate. First, there is an investigation to determine if anybody, including the cops, committed a crime. Second, the police department must determine if officers followed policies and procedures. The third investigation involves lawyers for the police department, preparing for a potential lawsuit.
The officers' legal predicament is unique because cops can be ordered to cooperate with the investigation and risk losing their jobs if they refuse.
This creates potential conflicts with Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. This is why officers are provided lawyers at public expense to advise them at every step.
Detectives from the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office were assigned to lead the probe into Mylo's death.
The sheriff's office told me it would take a few weeks to compile all the records I sought: police reports, witness statements, transcripts of 911 calls, photographs taken after the struggle and copies of any video surveillance that had been seized. I wouldn't get medical records or the autopsy report. Those are not public records under state law.
Instead, I hoped to get those from Mylo's family.
As intrusive as that may seem, I needed to understand fully what happened. I sensed that Mylo's family would agree.
<< Chapter II Chapter IV >>