NANCY MAYFIELD

By NANCY MAYFIELD

Guest Columnist and reporter for the Bellevue Herald-Leader and the Maquoketa Sentinel-Press

A  few weeks ago I was talking with a local resident about the newspaper’s coverage of the police  call involving Assistant Jackson County Attorney Amanda Lassance and how law enforcement officials in Clinton and Jackson counties handled it.

We discussed the process of using public records to tell a story.

We also talked about how facts can unfold in a way that results in multiple stories rather than just one.

We talked about the challenges of deciding when an ongoing story is finished.

“What would you like to see happen?” she asked me.

It was a great question that speaks to why local journalism matters. The pinnacle for any journalist is to report information that empowers a community to become a better place to live. We hope this story does that. We hope it leads to a positive change in how local law enforcement uses its discretion – change that will allow the public to have greater confidence that justice is distributed evenly no matter who is involved.

Trust, after all, is one of the most essential building blocks of a successful community.

The action by the Iowa Office of Ombudsman to investigate how sheriff’s departments in Clinton and Jackson counties handled the April 6 call referenced in the page one story today is a turning point and a positive thing. Bert Dalmer, the investigator handling the case, explained that his office often issues recommendations on how practices can be improved after the investigation is complete.

This story has caught the attention of a lot of people. Overwhelmingly, they want answers to the obvious questions.

Some believe we are writing too much about this issue. Others view our reporting as criticism of law enforcement in general. That, most certainly, is not our intent.

As has been the case for almost everyone in our community at one time or another, I have benefittted from the assistance of the people in blue who have come to my aid. When I’ve had car trouble, they have been of great help. When my family was burglarized, they investigated and helped us feel safe. Police do not have an easy job, and they are vital to our community’s public safety. But that does not absolve them from their responsibility to exercise discretion evenhandedly.

We’ve also heard from people with stories of their own – of themselves or someone they know being given a sobriety test and charged with drunk driving in situations that were less than clear cut. Those people didn’t tell us they weren’t at fault. Rather, they are questioning whether everyone is treated the same way.

About three years ago, I was chosen for jury duty in Jackson County. The man on trial had been found by police walking down the road about a quarter mile from a car that was not running. He was charged with operating while intoxicated (OWI) even though he wasn’t driving or even in the car at the time. The Jackson County prosecutor, who happened to be Amanda Lassance, asked the jury to use common sense to deduce that even though this person wasn’t seen by anyone driving the car, he had been operating it while intoxicated. Each case has its own nuances and details. I understand that, but fair and equal treatment needs to be consistent.

So, what would the newspaper and the community it serves like to see happen?

We’d like our local law enforcement to review policies regarding sobriety tests. We’d like them to issue sobriety tests when a person exhibits signs of intoxication and let the county attorneys do their jobs and decide whether or not to press charges. We would like it to not matter who they are.

We’d like local law enforcement to go over policies regarding body camera usage and then enforce those policies consistently.

Sometimes, you just need to admit you made a mistake, say you’re sorry, and make sure such things don’t happen in the future.

That’s what the public, and your hometown newspaper, would like to see happen.