Why details about the April 15 mass shooting in Alabama were so hard to come by

Investigators are looking into a mass shooting that took place at a birthday party in Dadeville, Ala. They have been tight-lipped about what they know and what they don’t know. The shooting left four people dead and dozens more injured.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING).

Jeremy Burket stated that the well-being of the families and the victims is our utmost priority, and we will remain dedicated to this cause. We will exercise caution in every action and word that we take.

Police have not released a motive. All of them, including a juvenile, have been charged with reckless murder. Police have arrested six people, including a juvenile, in connection with this shooting. Many people in Dadeville are frustrated that there is no more information about this. Last week, Sergeant Jeremy Burkett of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) stated this at a press conference.

Thank you for your presence. He is currently joining us. Challen Stephens, an investigative journalist and editor for Alabama Media Group, has extensively reported on law enforcement in Alabama.

CHALLEN STEPHENS: Thank you for inviting me.

DOMONOSKE: What is the current state of information release in this case?

Six arrests have now been made. There has only been basic information about the arrests. There hasn’t been much information, and they have only spoken to the main news outlets a few times. That’s one of the outlets that quoted you from the press conference, Stephens.

Is it typical for this agency to not release many details? Additionally, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency is overseeing this investigation. Correct. DOMONOSKE.

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At that juncture, an anxious populace reassured and expressed something along those lines – that this is a perplexing instance and simply could have articulated something similar. Thus, it is likely that they were unsure about what precisely to communicate, despite the fact that there are six – or at the very least six accused gunmen at this particular moment. This is an exceedingly intricate and bewildering case, although I am able to comprehend some of the challenges encountered in this situation. We are not provided with a substantial amount of information, and subsequently, they assume control over a significant number of high-profile shootings. They do exhibit a tendency towards limited transparency, which encompasses the State Bureau of Investigation and the state troopers. Such a characteristic is customary for ALEA, Stephens.

In 2021, Alabama’s Supreme Court has ruled that police investigative records are exempt from public records requests, thereby altering the state’s access to information. DOMONOSKE: Correct.

They won’t be able to see anything about the police anymore. He said we might rename the closed act records as it goes public, and interestingly, there was one dissenting vote. They haven’t already released a lot of this. If they don’t become public records ever, it’s not clear. They didn’t set any time limit. That’s why every 911 call body cam notes and any other investigative record about it was just ruled by the Supreme Court from 1 to 8. This ruling came after a weekly newspaper in Mobile had sought some police records around a case in Baldwin County. Well, that’s been a blow.

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Does it apply to investigations that have been concluded as well, or only to ongoing and open investigations? I would like to clarify, Domonoske, you stated that there is no specific timeframe.

It could potentially become a blanket ruling that encompasses all investigative material. It could worsen if it is not addressed until it is challenged and its clarity is not established. There was no distinction made. They did not mention whether the cases are dormant or active, they simply spoke about investigative materials. It is not clear in this ruling what Stephens is referring to.

DOMONOSKE: Correct. And on a larger scale, is Alabama’s law on public records formulated in a manner that facilitates obtaining records easily?

This ruling in 2021, acting as a highly negative precedent, has the potential to affect you. Moreover, it may prolong the process for several years, hence it is advisable to seek legal representation in case a government agency denies our request for public records, which is a common occurrence with ALEA. The only available recourse in such cases is to approach the courts. Unfortunately, there is no specific timeline, appeal mechanism, or enforcement in place. However, in reality, there is a lack of transparency and public access to any written materials from the government, despite it being claimed otherwise. From a philosophical standpoint, the answer is affirmative, albeit somewhat ambiguous.

Were you surprised by the lack of information released about this horrific shooting during last week’s occasional press briefings? Can I ask you, Challen: Domonoske.

This is how tightly guarded information operates, with great secrecy. They wouldn’t even disclose to us how many speeding tickets are written each year, let alone any kind of data. In order to obtain public records, we sought cooperation from the towns themselves as well as the Department of Revenue and conducted several state-wide investigations into other speed traps. The police were compelled to enforce three new laws. It was a bipartisan issue, with both Democrats and Republicans agreeing on the matter. In 2022, we put in a lot of effort in the town of Brookside, which had a reputation for aggressive policing. Absolutely not.

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DOMONOSKE: Challen Stephens, an investigative reporter and editor for al.Com, I appreciate your contribution. Thank you.

STEPHENS: Thanks.

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