Editorials

Editor’s note: Today’s editorial originally appeared in The Oregonian. Editorial content from other publications is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.

The Oregon State Police may have the best of intentions in withholding the name of the 15-year-old accused of sparking the Eagle Creek fire with fireworks. The nuclear-level fury and calls for violence against the unidentified teen have generated understandable concern over his safety if his name were to be released.

But the agency is only fanning the flames by saying it does not plan to ever release the teen’s name. Such a refusal goes against its practice of releasing suspect names of juveniles in high-profile cases, as Oregon State Police Capt. Bill Fugate acknowledged to The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Noelle Crombie. It also raises legitimate questions for the public about why the agency would take such an unusual step on behalf of this suspect and whether the agency’s apparent sympathy for the teen is affecting the rigor of its investigation.

Fugate later amended his earlier statement, telling The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board that Oregon State Police would consult with the state justice department and others before making a final decision. Prosecutors, provided they charge the teen, could also release his name. But the instinct to withhold public information for dubious reasons is one that has unfortunately become increasingly common. For example, the Oregon State Police still has not released the name of the trooper who fatally shot Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, one of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupiers, in January 2016 despite the obligation to allow the public to scrutinize situations in which an officer uses deadly force.

In the teen’s case, Fugate pointed to several comments on the agency’s Facebook page in which people called for public floggings, suggested that the teen be dropped from one of the planes dumping water on the fire and even that he be shot. Such remarks are disgusting and as recklessly ignorant as the teen’s alleged actions.

But as repulsive as they are, those comments don’t amount to credible, specific threats. They are examples of how people are emotionally imposing a hypothetical punishment, just as others are calling for prison sentences, fines, community service or other reparations. As extreme as some of these remarks are, the entire string of comments reflects the public’s reasonable desire that the justice system hold this teen accountable if he is responsible. There is plenty of room to do that without venturing into medieval punishments and while recognizing that no one mistake should define a teen or his future.

The public’s need for justice is what police and prosecutors need to remember. Their job is to demonstrate professionalism and objectivity in carrying out the investigation and determining what charges are merited. They should not bend the rules or change protocols out of sympathy. While the teen and his family deserve every bit of protection from genuine threats as any other member of the public, they do not deserve to be shielded from taking responsibility for what happened.

Instead, all the public has heard is radio silence — from the teen suspect, from the teen’s family and from the teen’s friends who accompanied him. Whether they realize it or not, such silence comes across as an arrogant disavowal of responsibility.

The authorities’ endorsement of such secrecy only makes things worse for the teen and for themselves. Conspiracy theories flourish in the absence of information. Already, people are filling in the blanks with their own ideas of why the teen isn’t being identified and questioning whether a nonwhite suspect would receive similar treatment. All fuel to add to the social-media conflagration.

The steps that Oregon State Police and prosecutors take reverberate beyond the teen’s identity. Will Oregon State Police subvert public records law and refuse to release video footage that reportedly shows the teen setting off the fireworks? Will it redact police reports sought by individual property owners who have lost homes to the fire and want to take legal action against the family? What other policies will the agency ignore to accommodate the teen and his family?

Certainly, the teen and his family shouldn’t have to live in fear of violence, but the Oregon State Police should look to respond to true threats, not online rants that officers imagine could evolve into a threat someday. This blaze trapped 150 hikers, burned four homes, torched 35,000 acres so far and forced nearly 2,000 people to evacuate. The vast fire and the destabilized terrain have put firefighters, police officers and emergency responders at risk. The conflagration has caused immense economic and incalculable emotional loss. Police shouldn’t add to the loss by devaluing the public’s legitimate right to know who was involved and how this devastation came to be.

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