The public is waiting

The Oregon Attorney General's Office decision to withhold the names of two Jackson County sheriff's deputies involved in a fatal shooting at an illegal marijuana garden last summer is appropriate under the circumstances — for now.

On the morning of Aug. 11, a Jackson County sheriff's SWAT team raided a growing operation in the Salt Creek area north of Sams Valley. The deputies believed the garden was being guarded by men with guns.

In the course of the raid, two team members encountered a man later identified as Itali Arellano-Vargas, 20, who was carrying a pail of water and a shotgun slung over his shoulder. Arellano-Vargas dropped the bucket and ran, shifting the shotgun into his right hand. He then turned toward the officers and the barrel of the gun swung toward them. Believing Arellano-Vargas was preparing to shoot at them, the officers fired, striking him twice.

A medic treated Arellano-Vargas but was unable to prevent his death.

Under ordinary circumstances, Oregon law requires that the names of police officers involved in deadly shootings be made public along with the details of the incident.

Police are authorized to carry loaded guns and to use deadly force when necessary in the course of their work. To protect the public and the rights of individuals officers may encounter on the job, police agencies maintain strict rules governing the use of deadly force.

The public has a clear interest in knowing whether officers who use deadly force were justified and acted in accordance with those rules. The names of the officers, who are public employees, are part of the information the public is entitled to know.

In this case, authorities say the man who died was connected to a Mexican drug cartel they believe was operating the marijuana garden. The cartels are known for using deadly violence to protect their operations and for retaliating against police and others who get in their way.

For that reason, Oregon State Police investigators declined to release the two deputies' names, and the Attorney General's Office upheld that decision.

Associate Attorney General David Leith ruled that, while the public has a strong interest in monitoring the use of deadly force by police, "the specific dangers to law enforcement in this situation presently outweigh that public interest."

The Mail Tribune has no desire to place police officers in danger by publishing their names if that could pose a threat to their safety. But it is reasonable to expect that the continuing investigation will end at some point.

In fact, two days after the shooting, police stopped five men suspected of being connected to the Sams Valley growing operation and two other gardens. Three of the men were related to Arellano-Vargas, and they possessed a .30-caliber rifle equipped with a scope and bipod suitable for use as a sniper weapon, police said.

It is reasonable to assume those men are in custody, reducing any threat they might pose, but we don't know for sure because police won't say, citing the continuing investigation.

It has now been more than four months since those incidents. As Leith noted in his order, at some point the investigation will end, and "the threat to officer safety may dissipate with time," adding that nothing in his order prevents the Mail Tribune from requesting the deputies' names again in the future.

Jackson County residents have an interest in seeing that happen sooner rather than later.

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