Good or bad, information must flow

A Curry County jail inmate died early Sunday morning, hours after telling authorities he had swallowed methamphetamine.
It’s the second time in a year a jail inmate has died under similar circumstances. Just as disturbing, it is the second time in a year jail officials have been less than open about providing information to the public.
This keeping of secrets by the county when people die must end.
How do many people learn the facts about tragedies such as deaths? Often from media reports. And the media get those facts from public officials, in this case county officials.
But in these two deaths involving jail inmates, Curry County officials who oversee the jail didn’t deign to notify the public immediately through the media.
Last May, jail inmates contacted a reporter after Joyce Acy died in the jail’s custody. This week, the media — and the public — didn’t learn of Martin Smith’s death until more than 72 hours after it happened. When the information was made public, guess what? It didn’t come from Curry County. It came from the Clovis Police Department, which faxed its report to the newspaper. That department doesn’t oversee the jail, by the way.
The media, including this newspaper and area radio stations that cover local news, must share the blame for delayed coverage of this latest major event. After the Acy case — in which the Clovis News Journal had to threaten litigation before public documents related to the death were released four months later — we should have immediately adopted a more adversarial relationship with those officials.
Why does the media have to strike such a posture on publicly owned information? Because it is increasingly clear the public cannot expect Curry County officials to do their jobs and report public information that might make the county look bad. This media representative will be more aggressive in its approach, and so should our broadcast brothers and sisters.
County Manager Geneva Cooper said Thursday it was not her intention to keep secrets from the public. She said she does not know why media were not contacted about the latest death.
“We don’t have a policy,” she said. “Maybe we should.”
No maybes about it. Just do what’s right and tell the taxpayers first thing when someone dies in their custody. Or when anything of major consequence occurs.
Why should anyone be forced to go to the jail daily and ask if anyone died in their custody the night before?
Jail administrator Don Burdine said he never thought about informing the media when Smith died. “I did remark to the reporter when they called that I was surprised I hadn’t heard from them sooner,” he said.
It’s hard to ask about something when we don’t know it’s occurred.
Burdine and Cooper and other county officials forget the media is their link to their bosses, the taxpayers. Bosses want to know right away when a county prisoner dies — especially when it falls on the heels of another prisoner’s death, for heaven’s sake.
Why do bosses want to know? First, public safety could involve them, their relatives or friends and neighbors. Second, such tragic incidents, no matter the fault, tend to lead to lawsuits being filed. Lawsuits can increase expenses and eventually lead to higher taxes or reduced county services to offset the added costs. Third, when one death occurs and the report on a second one doesn’t come out voluntarily, it makes us and other county residents wonder what else their elected and appointed officials might be hiding.
By demanding the voluntary release of public information right away we are not accusing county officials of anything improper that led to the death of Martin Smith on Sunday. Reports from jail officials and police indicate they took immediate action when Smith told them he had ingested the illegal drug.
To Don Burdine’s credit, when asked about Smith’s death, he immediately released jail records, and he has been open in discussing the incident.
In the Acy case, Geneva Cooper, former jail administrator Tom Swearingen and other county officials fought the same requests for months before giving in only after this newspaper promised to sue.
Who knows, there could be another promise needed in the Acy case. Joyce Acy’s family has settled its lawsuit against Curry County and other public entities following her death last May 15. That settlement, which certainly involves tax dollars, was agreed on in January, but the amount has yet to be released to the public. Cooper said the case was handled by the county’s insurance carrier, which won’t release the information until August.
Rest assured, that information will come out. If we have to issue another promise, we will. The public has the right to know who dies in its custody, and why, and how much it costs to pay for a legal settlement that implies wrongdoing occurred.