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Last Thursday at about 8 a.m., I called the Shasta County Coroner’s office, seeking to fill in some of the blanks on “A Short History Of Fatal Encounters With Shasta County Law Enforcement,” my story published by A News Cafe last Tuesday.
The story was based on data collected by the Fatal Encounters website, a nonprofit organization headed by my friend and colleague D. Brian Burghart that is attempting to catalog every person killed during interactions with police officers in the United States since 2000.
As I explained in the story, there is no public database that tracks such deaths. So Fatal Encounters collects information from what few public resources exist as well as media reports on the following data points: name, city, county, state, race, age, gender, year of death, date of injury resulting in death, if mental illness was present, victims’ disposition, cause, submitter, circumstances, and the police agencies responsible.
As Burghart explains on the website, which I provided a link to in my story, Fatal Encounters is “not a finished product. We’re just the first step toward creating an impartial, comprehensive and searchable national database of people killed during interactions with law enforcement.”
One data point that has proven persistently hard for Fatal Encounters to fill is the race of the deceased person. Many newspapers choose not to report race, and in those cases, race is marked “unspecified.” The race of six of the 35 people killed by police officers in Shasta County listed in my story were marked “unspecified,” including the most recent, Donnell Lang.
Thus my call to to the Shasta County Coroner’s office last Thursday morning. I left a message saying I was seeking information on Lang’s race and was somewhat surprised when the call was almost immediately returned.
The woman on the line didn’t identify herself and told me she’d have to get permission from the higher-ups before releasing any information. I told her I was also seeking information on some of the other 35 fatal encounters I documented in my recent story on A News Cafe and spelled out our website’s address for her. She promised to get back to me.
She didn’t. But approximately three hours later, A News Cafe publisher Doni Chamberlain received a private email from one Ashleigh Roller claiming my story was filled with numerous errors:
“I would like to offer some advice for your reporters. After reading R.V. Scheide’s article “A Short History of Fatal Encounters with Shasta County Law Enforcement”, I noticed many inaccuracies that can be fact checked fairly easily.
“All of the information Mr. Scheide reports on is listed on a Death Certificate, which is a public record document. All anyone has to do is request a copy of it from the Shasta County Recorder’s Office or the Vital Records Office. There is a fee for requesting this document, but, to me, no price would be too high to report accurate information. Another option is to request a copy of the Coroner’s Report from the Coroner’s Office, which is also a public record document, however, it only becomes public record once the case is closed and that can take some time.
“Thank you for your time,
Chamberlain, who does not know Ashleigh Roller, forwarded me the email. I replied to Ashleigh Thursday afternoon.
“Doni forwarded me your email. I’m interested in what numerous errors you are referring to? I checked all 35 deaths against the record in the local press, I am in fact in contact with the coroner’s office to fill in the blanks, such as cases where race is unidentified. My report is based on the work of other journalists, so if I got numerous things wrong, so did they. Please enlighten us as to who you are and what errors you are talking about.
Roller responded 90 minutes later:
“The point of my initial email was to offer advice to check facts. If you are basing your work on the work performed by other writers, you should still check the facts before signing you name to the story. The inaccuracies I was referring to relate to the cause, manner, and circumstances surrounding some of the different cases you mentioned, all of which can be checked by requesting a copy of the Death Certificate or Coroner’s Report. Race can also be found in those documents.”
“Name one,” I shot back, referring to the alleged errors. Then it hit me. She hadn’t answered my first question—who are you?–and she sure seemed to know a lot about the Coroner’s Office. Who is this Ashleigh Roller?
So I searched the name on Facebook, and discovered, surprise, surprise, that Ashleigh Roller is an administrative secretary for the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office. According to the Sheriff’s website, she works for … a drum roll please … the Coroner’s Office.
In other words, a public employee of the Shasta County Coroner’s Office, rather than reply to a journalist’s legitimate request for information, instead contacted my boss in an effort to discredit my work, Fatal Encounters’ work and the work of any reporter who’s ever written a news story about someone dying at the hands of local law enforcement during the past 20 years.
I’ll admit I was a bit livid when I sent the following reply to Roller.
“Ah, I see, you work for the Sheriff’s Office. Funny how I just called the coroner today and all of a sudden you pop up out of nowhere. I’ll be publishing your name and title in my next story. Think about that next time you go behind someone’s back and try to torpedo them.
I spent three days researching and writing last week’s story, most of which was spent confirming that each of the 35 fatal encounters with Shasta County law enforcement had indeed occurred since 2000. I found all 35 cases in the Record Searchlight’s online archive maintained by the Shasta County Library. I did not find any cases that weren’t on the Fatal Encounters database.
Infrequently, I found a discrepancy between the database and the news report. If possible, I tried to add this information in the “summary description” of each incident. In at least one case, the “cause of death” changed, and I indicated that.
As Roller correctly noted in her email reply to me, the coroner’s report often comes out long after public interest in the case has subsided, and sometimes the “cause of death” changes. Unless the case attracted significant publicity, newspapers don’t do follow-up stories.
But this doesn’t change the fact that the person died after a fatal encounter with police. The suggestion that before publishing, I should have paid whatever the fee is for a coroner report multiplied by 35 reports is laughable.
At any rate, I’m fully willing to concede with Roller that some of the data points on Fatal Encounters are in need of updating, since I’m apparently the person who gave her the idea. Obviously, the six decedents in my story whose race remains “unidentified” were of one race or another, and that will be listed on the death certificate or the coroner’s report.
Who knows what else is listed in those 35 coroner reports? That’s why I called the Coroner’s Office in the first place—to find out what access there was to these reports. Instead, a public employee who didn’t identify herself as such attempted to get me in hot water.
Never one to waste an opportunity, I decided to give Roller a chance to redeem herself and emailed her one more time.
“You know A News Cafe is a shoe-string operation. It’s funny that you think we have the money to just buy 35 coroner’s reports. I have a better idea. How about you give them to us for free and I’ll correct the record, since that’s what you seem so concerned about. After all, I contacted the coroner first, before you contacted my boss.”
Needless to say, Roller has gone mute since I discovered her actual identity. The Coroner’s Office has not called me back. I’m willing to wager that the last thing Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko wants is a journalist pouring over the coroner reports of all the people who’ve been killed by law enforcement in Shasta County since 2000.
This isn’t a story Ashleigh Roller wants her name on. That’s why she didn’t use her work email address to contact my boss. But there was one thing she didn’t count on.
This journalist would fight back.
I belong to a decaying and increasingly unpopular institution, journalism. According to the most recent Gallup Poll on confidence in public institutions, only 23 percent of those surveyed nationally said they had a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers, just 20 percent expressed the same about TV News, and a mere 16 percent had confidence in Internet News—which is where the vast majority of people get their news these days.
Only Congress, at 11 percent, has a lower rating. Journalism is running neck-and-neck with the Criminal Justice system with its 22 percent confidence rating.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Gallup Poll found that nearly three-quarters, 74 percent, of those surveyed have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military, and more than half, 54 percent, felt the same about law enforcement.
Above, I wrote about the lengths one Shasta County Sheriff’s Office employee went to discredit last week’s story on fatal encounters with local law enforcement.
At the same time this was unfolding, WikiLeaks founder and publisher Julian Assange was hauled out of the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where has sought asylum for the past seven years, based on his fears that the United States government was seeking to indict and extradite him for publishing documents leaked by Chelsea Manning in 2010.
Moments after Assange exited the embassy in the supine position, the United States indicted him for him for publishing documents leaked by Chelsea Manning in 2010.
It’s more than ironic that President Donald Trump, who benefited bigly from WikiLeak’s summer of 2016 document dump that exposed the Democratic Party’s efforts to thwart Bernie Sanders’ campaign, suddenly doesn’t know what WikiLeaks is.
It’s worth noting that the most controversial information leaked by Manning and published by WikiLeaks, and subsequently, “The New York Times”, “The Washington Post”, “The Guardian” and countless other media outlets, concerned a U.S. Army helicopter crew killing a dozen civilians in Iraq in 2007, including two Reuters journalists.
The only two people who’ve done time for that war crime are Chelsea Manning, who’s being held in prison for refusing to testify, and Julian Assange, whose fate is uncertain.
But go ahead, tell me why Julian Assange is a criminal, not a journalist.
It’s guaranteed to get the conversation going.