After Aurora, Illinois, police finally made public video of a traffic stop involving a teen who fatally shot himself, the police chief lashed out at reporters she says abuse freedom of information requests to engage in unnecessary fishing expeditions.
“[I]f I were in the shoes of a reporter, I think I would spend time keeping my readers informed and I would be vehement in my quest for truth,” Chief Kristen Ziman wrote Tuesday on her personal blog. “But in doing so, I would not automatically assume everyone is lying or withholding unless they gave me a reason to believe that.”
“FOIA requests should be strategic and not just a fishing expedition,” she added, referring to the Freedom of Information Act, a vital investigative reporting tool requiring state or federal agencies to provide agency records or information that aren’t protected from disclosure.
Ziman specifically called out Washington Post reporter Wesely Lowery, who had criticized the chief in Twitter for comments she made on Facebook about a local reporter who had been aggressively pursuing recording involving the October 2016 incident. Lowery won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2016 for his investigative work tracking police shootings.
In which a police department publicly berates a reporter for having the audacity to file a records request for information about a shooting https://t.co/oDNG9qulIh
— Wesley Lowery (@WesleyLowery) September 26, 2017
For months, the local Beacon-News had been demanding to see the dash cam video and internal documents related to the traffic stop. It took the intervention of the Illinois Attorney General's office before Ziman relented and posted the video on the department’s Facebook page.
According to the police reports, Anthony Martell, 18, committed suicide with his gun after fleeing the scene of a traffic stop and exchanging fire with Officer Jason Woolsey. The dashcam video released on Monday shows Martell fleeing the scene of the traffic stop with Woolsey in pursuit.
There’s no evidence Woolsey acted inappropriately or that Martell’s suicide was a cover-up. However, the police department’s resistance to abiding by FOIA requests and Ziman’s criticisms of reporters’ use of the law ignited a tit-for-tat between law enforcement and local journalists.
“If Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman’s view of the world gained currency, America would be a scary place for those who cherish the democratic ideals of a free press and the people’s right to know whether their government is following the laws of the land,” the Beacon-News wrote in an editorial published on Tuesday. “She complained that sometimes the reporter does not even write a story after filing a FOIA request. We realize that you are somewhat new to this business of being a journalism critic, chief, but we must clue you in to one of our newsgathering secrets: You can't tell if information is worth writing a story about until you see the information. Crazy, right?”
Excessive use of police force has been a major focus in recent years following a string of high-profile fatal police shootings of African American suspects, spurring newsrooms to increase scrutiny of all officer-involved shootings. FOIA is a vital tool in that quest for truth, even if many of the requests lead to dead ends.