Indy and Gazette fight for release of deputy autopsy report 

Editor's Note

El Paso County Coroner Robert Bux is again trying to prevent the release of records that the law clearly permits the people to see and review — continuing his campaign against government transparency even while he is in his final months in office.

On July 12, Bux asked a court to allow him to block the release of the autopsy reports of El Paso County Sheriff’s Deputy Micah Flick and auto theft suspect Manuel Zetina, killed in a police shootout on Feb. 5.

Autopsy reports are public records for a reason: They often reveal problems that would be ignored if they were kept secret.

Earlier this year, Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed a bill instigated by Bux that would have blocked all children’s autopsy reports from public view. In his veto, the governor noted transparency in these records has made our state a better and safer place. Without public autopsy records, for instance, there never would have been an investigative series by The Denver Post and 9News detailing oversights by government caseworkers who “failed” abused kids “to death.” That series led to reforms that saved other kids’ lives.

Now Bux wants to block the public from knowing what really happened to Flick and Zetina, following requests for the public records by the Independent and the Gazette. Flick was an officer of the law who was working for the public at the time of his death. Zetina was shot by police officers. The people should be suspicious of — if not outraged by — such a move, especially given that the Indy’s reporting has uncovered serious questions about how the police operation that led to Flick’s and Zetina’s deaths was handled.

Bux is claiming that releasing the reports would “cause substantial injury to the public interest,” the only excuse permissible for not releasing the reports. We contend that the opposite is true. A substantial injury to the public interest occurs when government officials are able to cover up the deaths of a police officer and a suspect killed by police officers, even when the law says the public has a right to know what happened to them.

As Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, notes, “An autopsy report is an important transparency tool that can reveal crucial information, especially in cases such as this where there are many unanswered questions. And because they are not criminal justice records, autopsy reports are an independent source of public information that can help journalists and the public evaluate government agencies, including law enforcement. It is often very much in the public interest for these reports to remain open and accessible.”
Think about the precedent withholding these reports would set. If the government can hide these reports, what can’t it hide?

Here’s the good news. The Indy and the Gazette are teaming up to fight for transparency in this matter. Our First Amendment attorney, Steve Zansberg, notes that courts have previously rejected Bux’s attempts to block the release of autopsy reports from homicides. “This case,” he says, “should yield the same result.”

But perhaps it’s time we asked this question: Why are our government officials using our tax dollars to pay attorneys to try to block public documents from the eyes of the people?

In trying to conceal extremely relevant information on a law enforcement action from the public eye, Bux cites the grief of Flick’s family. Our whole community grieves with the Flicks. We all felt the loss when he was killed. But we also have a right to know what happened to our officer, and to call on our leaders to make changes that might prevent another such death in the future. What’s more, grief alone — as difficult as it is — does not create a special circumstance. Those of us lucky enough to have friends and family will also be grieved one day. And our autopsy reports, should we require them, will be public records.

To give you an idea of how rarely this exception is intended to be used, it was most notably, and controversially, employed after the Columbine High School shootings — at a time when a mass shooting in a school was an unheard of tragedy. The courts still released those reports at a later date.

Bux also says that he doesn’t want to release these reports because there’s an active investigation into the shooting. But that investigation will close, and Bux’s request isn’t to simply delay the release of Deputy Flick and Zetina’s autopsy reports, but to prevent them from ever being released.
If that sounds suspicious, that’s because it is. Open records laws aren’t just for the press; they’re for the public. A government that can hide from the people invites corruption.


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