If you run a public agency, shouldn’t the first quality you look for in a public information officer be a belief in transparency, a commitment to sharing public information with taxpayers as quickly as possible without seeming to begrudge its release?
You’d certainly hope so, and that does, in fact, seem to be the rule. The vast majority of public agencies we work with employ helpful, diligent communications staff.
Then there’s the Bend Police Department and its public information officer, Lt. Clint Burleigh. Surely there’s some role in the department to which Burleigh is better suited than the one he’s in. The difficulties Bulletin reporters have encountered in dealing with Burleigh have earned him a sort of celebrity status in the newsroom, which is about the nicest way we can put it.
On Nov. 20, a Bend resident named Jonathan Chase Adams was struck and killed by a FedEx truck driven by Trenton Derek Sage at the intersection of NW Olney Avenue and NW Wall Street. The names of the two men involved were not released on the day of the accident. It is customary for public safety agencies to withhold the identities of people killed under such circumstances until their families have been notified.
Fair enough, though that rationale should not apply to the identities of those driving the vehicles that strike them. Yet it is common practice for the Bend Police Department to withhold those identities initially as well. On July 3, for instance, a woman was struck and killed by a truck while trying to cross U.S. Highway 97 at Powers Road. The July 4 press release identified neither person, though it did note the far less relevant fact that the truck was a 2015 Ford F150.
Anyway, a Bulletin reporter called the police department on Nov. 21 and asked for the identities of those involved in the accident the previous day. Burleigh refused to divulge the names, but not for the purpose of notifying Adams’ family. He refused, as he explained, because the accident happened only days before Thanksgiving, and divulging painful — if public — information would be inconsistent with his view of the holidays.
Only after a text exchange with Police Chief Jim Porter did his department issue an updated press release on the afternoon of Nov. 21.
Fast forward to this week. On Monday, a motorcyclist was struck and killed by a truck just before 2 p.m. on Century Drive in Bend. The initial press release identified neither of those involved. Our reporter called Burleigh to ask for the names at about 4:15 on Tuesday — 15 minutes before Burleigh planned to issue a press release. Burleigh could have said “sure” and provided the names. Instead, he agreed only to say the names, but refused to spell them. That’s not an insignificant matter, as the truck driver’s name, Nikole Ashlee Cox, has a nonstandard spelling.
The larger issue here is that Burleigh on at least two occasions chose to jerk reporters around rather than providing public information he was in a position to release.
Two questions for Porter: First, why is Burleigh the department’s public information officer in the first place? Second, what does keeping him in this position say about the department’s commitment to transparency?