Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Our View - Once shooting probe is completed, officials must release all details

Printed Iowa City Press-Citizen, Aug. 1, 2009.

HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another -- the classification is for advantage of the lawyers." -- Ambrose Bierce, "The Devil's Dictionary" (1911).

There nothing good about the shooting of a homeless Sudanese refugee by a 24-year veteran of the Johnson County Sheriff's Department. And while the Iowa City police and state agencies investigate the shooting, the local community is left to debate which of the four labels listed above should be attached to the death.

Initial police reports say that on July 24, 26-year-old John Deng got into an argument with 63-year-old John Bohnenkamp -- an argument that turned physical and resulted in Bohnenkamp being stabbed. Deputy Terry Stotler then lethally shot Deng after the man made what the plain-clothed officer perceived as a threatening move toward Bohnenkamp.

The situation is further complicated politically because Deng -- who has a list of encounters with Iowa City police stretching back two years -- had no known address for at least five months. A newly formed community group, Iowa Citizens for Social Change, already has been pressing the police to release more information about the shooting.

Because this is a community where many can recall vividly a police shooting 13 years ago, we too hope the reports from the police and state investigators will answer all of the community's questions. We urge investigators, after they have completed their investigations and announced their conclusions, to make public as much information as possible.

In the meantime, here are the answers to some of the questions the community has been asking over the past week.

Questions authorities have answered:

• Stotler is a civil deputy. What exactly does a civil deputy do? Why are they in plain clothes? And how much training do they have to carry a gun?

Civil deputies are responsible for serving court summons, documents and eviction notices. They have as much training as any other deputies, but they normally perform their duties in plain clothes, carrying only a badge, a gun and handcuffs. A uniformed officer, in contrast, typically would have access to pepper spray, a Taser or a night stick.

• Who will make the final determination of whether Stotler's shooting of Deng was justifiable?

Once local authorities have completed their investigation -- with the inclusion of an autopsy and toxicology report -- the updated materials will be sent to the state attorney general's office. Officials in that office will determine whether Stotler could have reasonably perceived that he or another person was under the threat of deadly force. They will make the decision on whether to file criminal charges against Stotler.

• What information from the investigation will be made public?

If charges are filed against Stotler, then information from the investigation could be made public through testimony and court evidence. If no charges are filed, we hope the state still provides more than enough information to justify the decision.

Questions still being investigated:

• Had Deng been drinking or using drugs?

The toxicology reports won't be back for weeks.

• How much (if any) had Bohnenkamp been drinking before he confronted Deng for breaking bottles on the 300 block of Prentiss Street?

We don't know.

• What was said to escalate the confrontation so quickly?

Bohnenkamp has offered no comment on the incident.

• Did Stotler identify himself as a police officer when he drew his gun?

According to police, several witnesses say that he did.

• Did Deng have a knife in his hand when Stotler shot him? And was he acting in a threatening manner?

According to police, several witnesses say that he did have a knife and was being threatening. Two men told another media outlet that Deng was not being threatening. The police have recovered the knife, but they said they are not releasing a description of the knife because the matter is still under investigation.

Questions that require more police, media and public research:

• If Deng is one of the "lost boys of the Sudan," how did he end up in Iowa City? Why did he stay? Why didn't his family know that he was homeless?

This could be an interesting story. There are many books and films about the more than 27,000 boys who were displaced and orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War. Through help from the public, the police recently notified Deng's family members who came to Iowa City to identify the body.

However Deng came to Iowa City, he has had several run-ins with the Iowa City police in the past two years. Police records show he was arrested for public intoxication on July 11 by Iowa City police, his third such offense since March 2008. Deng was arrested for drunken driving in August 2007 by Iowa City police and has several other offenses on his record, including a charge of disorderly conduct -- fighting or violent behavior stemming from a June 2007 incident.

• How well did Deng speak and understand English?

Iowa City Police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said, despite being born in another country, Deng seemed to have an understanding of the English language in his past experiences with the Iowa City police. Crissy Canganelli, the director of Shelter House, said the shelter staff ranked Deng as a 5 out of 10 in terms of language ability, with 10 being fluent.

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