Murray Bishoff: McDowell shooting: When bad situations come to good people
Last week, we were able to finally report what happened in the shooting incident between Aurora Police Officer Weston Welch and Thomas Eugene Sekscinski on Aug. 31, 2016.
The public needs to know how bad outcomes ó in this case, a fatal shooting ó occur. Itís not just an internal police matter when a life is involved.
The experience of trying to report this story left many concerning impressions.
My first column on this subject a year ago in The Monett Times raised an unprecedented chorus of hostility against this writer for questioning how Officer Welch ended up doing what he did, considering even the initial reports suggested he had some non-fatal options open to him. These attacks became personal.
Maybe itís these post-Ferguson times that have made law enforcement hyper-sensitive to anything that looks like criticism. Maybe itís todayís pugnacious political atmosphere. We have to be able to talk about these situations so that the public, the employers of law enforcement, are comfortable with their public servants. A situation like Ferguson in 2014, where the courts were rigged and the public felt like police were an army of occupation, is not going to have a good outcome, and didnít.
That being said, we now know how badly Mr. Sekscinski behaved, how threateningly he acted toward Officer Welch, that he often spoke of hurting himself and that his abuse of controlled substances likely clouded his judgment. It is hard to fault Prosecutor Amy Boxx for declining to file charges against the officer.
We also know Officer Welch placed himself in the worst possible, non-defensive position to confront Mr. Sekscinski. Had Mr. Sekscinski been armed, as Welch suggested to the next officer arriving on the scene, this scenario could have had an even more tragic outcome. Circumstances further blocked radios and approaching backup from reaching the scene, creating a perfect storm for a calamity.
Police Chief Rich Witthuhn, speaking much more candidly outside of the presence of former Aurora city manager Mike Randall, addressed these issues quite openly and without hostility in his latest interview with the Cassville Democrat. Much to his credit, Witthuhn had his officers undergo additional training, as was suggested in this column a year ago. Hopefully that training included more ways to respond in a non-lethal manner to such a situation.
Other circumstances in the course of following this story left lingering concerns.
The Missouri State Highway Patrolís independent report into the shooting, in the form that it was released, states the last evidence was assessed in mid-October 2016, after which the case was closed. Yet we were told months later that it was still an open investigation. There may be other peripheral issues that never surfaced in the released report, as sources suggested to us. Having no other answers leaves the public, and the press, to draw its own conclusions.
Why, then, should it have taken Prosector Boxx until February to send a letter to City Manager Randall to say that no charges would be filed? Mrs. Boxx has characteristically had little to say on the case, but it does leave one to wonder.
Most perplexing has been the contradictory statements made by various Highway Patrol spokespersons over the status of the report and its availability for release to the public. On occasion, we were told Mrs. Boxx would ultimately release the report, which she never did. It would take the Patrol another two months after Mrs. Boxx had made her decision to finally release the document. Withholding the report as primary evidence in a prosecution is understandable. Withholding it out of stubbornness is something else entirely. Withholding it until after Officer Welch had left the Aurora police is much less defensible.
We donít know what to think, but we did not find the delays reassuring or justified.
Then there was the decision by Withhuhn and Randall to withhold Officer Welchís name. We understand the concern about threats made against officers in retaliation. Nonetheless, the press must ask for the names of officers involved in such incidents. As journalists, we must side with disclosure and see more potential harm in targeting every officer in a department by not naming the parties involved. Nor does withholding names give the public more confidence in its police.
If any of our law enforcement agencies find themselves in a similar situation, we encourage them to be truly transparent, names and all.
This has been an unusually difficult situation on both sides of the badge. Since the public elects the people who hire and pay police, it is the mission of the press to keep the public informed, so that policy is shaped by what the public really wants. The public and its elected officials canít make informed decisions without the facts.
The bottom line is the public wants to be safe, and wants its officers to be safe. Kudos to Chief Withhuhn for making the effort to keep similar circumstances from having the same bad outcome. We hope all of our area officers will review the case as well, learn from it, try to understand when the public questions bad outcomes, and work toward mutual understanding.
Murray Bishoff is the news editor of The Monett Times and a frequent Cassville Democrat contributor.