Twenty-eight days elapsed before authorities identified the victim of a police-action shooting near Monrovia.
Law enforcement officials didn’t release the name of the individual until Brian Culp, managing editor of The Reporter-Times (Martinsville), filed a complaint with the Indiana public access counselor.
According to state law, the information should have been available for inspection and copying within 24 hours of the Sept. 5 incident, said Steve Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.
“This was totally unacceptable under Indiana law,” Key said. “Section 5 of the Access to Public Records Act clearly requires law enforcement agencies to identify individuals they detain or victims involved in potential criminal actions.”
On the morning of Sept. 5, Culp said deputies from the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department served a search warrant at a rural Monrovia-area home.
According to Indiana State Police Public Information Officer Curt Durnil, officers announced their presence and then entered the home in northwestern Morgan County.
Once inside, deputies fired shots and wounded a man. He was taken to an Indianapolis hospital for treatment. No police officers were injured.
A reporter from The Reporter-Times was on the scene shortly after the shooting, as were reporters from Indianapolis media outlets. Culp said authorities didn’t make details about the incident available on that Friday.
On the following Monday (Sept. 8), The Reporter-Times asked for the daily log entries for the incident. The sheriff’s department gave no information to the newspaper.
“I’ve never been involved in a situation where the victim of a police-shooting wasn’t identified,” Culp said.
The newspaper also made attempts to secure daily log reports from the Indiana State Police and Martinsville Police Department, who were called to the scene; from the Morgan County Prosecutor’s Office, and from the Morgan County courts website, where search warrants are normally posted. But authorities made no information available.
A week later on Sept. 15, Culp filed complaints with Public Access Counselor Luke Britt against the county and city police departments and the prosecutor’s office.
On Sept. 22, Culp was given the original search warrant that sparked the gunfire and a secondary search warrant requested by the Indiana State Police, who were tasked with investigating the shooting.
On Sept. 29 and Oct. 1, Britt issued expedited opinions on the newspaper’s complaints. He found no violation by the prosecutor’s office, which is still awaiting a report from the police, but said the police agencies failed to fulfill their requirements under Section 5 of the Access to Public Records Act.
On Oct. 3, Durnil identified the wounded man as David Skinner, 53, Monrovia, who lives at the home where the search warrant was served. Durnil said Skinner has been released from a hospital after treatment for gunshot wounds.
A reluctant release
The Indiana State Police made it clear in a press release that officials released Skinner’s name reluctantly “due to the circumstances of the investigation, and with the approval of the special prosecutor” assigned to review the state police investigation of the incident.
What remains unanswered is whether police or Skinner initiated the gunfire. The state police search warrant said a shotgun was found in the home’s attic, but police haven’t said where Skinner was when he was shot.
Durnil said police seized items from the home under the original search warrant, which concerned suspicion of stolen property at the home.
No charges have been filed against Skinner as of press time Oct. 8.
Skinner, however, has taken action against Morgan County, Culp said.
The Carmel-based law office of Stewart & Stewart filed a tort claim against the county on behalf of Skinner for compensation for his injuries. Attorneys filed a second claim for another person at the home when police arrived, Lenny Pennell, who said she fell and injured her right side when officers broke through the door.
Skinner’s tort claim says he was shot multiple times and alleges the officers used excessive force because he was unarmed.
The legal angle
Key said the Access to Public Records Act specifically says the information required by Section 5 can’t be kept confidential as an investigatory record.
“How law enforcement officials do their job must be transparent under the statute,” he said. “The policy is easy to understand – we don’t want individuals injured, arrested or harassed by police in secret. That’s why the state legislature wrote language attempting to balance the need for authorities to protect investigations with the need to allow the public to monitor police actions.”
IC 5-14-3-5(c) requires police to create a daily log or report that lists suspected crimes, accidents, or complaints and if the incident involved an alleged crime or infraction. The report should include when the incident occurred, name and age of any victims, the factual circumstances surrounding the incident, and general description of any injuries, property or weapons involved.
Key said the sheriff’s department didn’t come close to fulfilling the daily log obligation in the 24-hour deadline, nor has it fulfilled its responsibility to release all of the required information as of Oct. 8.
Culp said the sheriff’s position is that the investigation became the responsibility of the Indiana State Police and his hands were tied.
Key disputes that stance.
“The incident still falls under the jurisdiction of the sheriff’s department to make the information available as required by Section 5,” he said.
Twenty-eight days is much too long to keep secret the identity of someone shot by police, and the sheriff and state police still should supply missing information required by law to be released, Key said.