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Editorial: Questions still unresolved about K-9 incident

For reporters, sending public records requests can sometimes feel a little like tossing paper into a never-ending black hole.

That’s particularly true for state and federal agencies, where responsiveness depends on the agency’s commitment to transparency. It hasn’t been the case for local government, where records are almost always provided in a timely manner. Requests related to the Salisbury Police Department’s K-9 incident are trending toward the former rather than the latter. Records and other requests by the Post are in their second month, and there’s no clear timeline about when any further answers might be provided.

The public deserves more answers.

The Post has submitted requests that include:

• Text messages by multiple city council members and the city manger. The city manager said he personally worked on this last week after being asked about the status.

• Questions to clarify personnel information received by the Post, which have not been answered.

• The bill of sale for K-9 officer Zuul as well as another K-9. The Post also has asked for additional health assessments. Neither of these two have been filled.

As a reminder, a video that looks recorded on a cellphone leaked March 1 and showed a K-9 training exercise. An officer shown in the video, identified by the police department as Buddy Hampton, walked toward a man in a bite suit. His K-9, Zuul, followed. Hampton then turned around, put a leash on the dog, pulled the leash over his shoulder, carried the dog to a police cruiser and slammed the K-9 into the car. He pulled Zuul up by his collar, put the dog into the car and struck it with his hand.

The public later learned the incident occurred last year. Some Salisbury City Council members saw the video months before it leaked. The only veterinary assessment after the incident happened March 4. Records obtained by the Post also show that Hampton has a clean personnel record. Hired in 2013, he reached master police officer and had received several merit pay raises.

What the public knows now is only part of the story. The Salisbury Police Department said March 31 Hampton acted “in a manner entirely inconsistent with his K-9 training.” But Police Chief Jerry Stokes also said during a March 2 news conference K-9 training and corrective measures “can sometimes be alarming when provided out of context.” How many incidents like this have occurred at police departments around the country and not been leaked in a video? These aren’t questions that could be answered in a public records request, but they are still unresolved.

To be fair to staff, the city received a flood of records requests from local, state and national media outlets related to the K-9 incident. For some records, text messages in particular, there’s no easy record-keeping system — something worth changing. But others requests are as simple as providing individual documents or spending a minute or two to clarify a question.

Further reporting about the incident may seem like much ado about nothing to some. The officer depicted in the video resigned. What’s left to say? Our answer is that trust in a community institution depends on a full, transparent telling of the incident. Asked about the status of records requests last week, for example, Mayor Karen Alexander told the Post Hampton was separated from the dog and an investigation into the incident started before the video leaked.

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