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DEAR READER: Many questions, few answers, in killing of Brandon Coleman

Friday, June 21, 2013 | 5:30 p.m. CDT; updated 12:52 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Dear Reader,

Family and friends of Brandon Coleman are growing tired of the Columbia Police Department’s standard response — which is essentially “we can’t say anything” — to details about his death.

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Witnesses say Coleman was shot four times on May 19 in an altercation with at least one man and his son. Police have refused to identify the shooter, or the father of the shooter.

A month after the shooting, the primary question appears to be whether the man acted in self-defense or in defending someone else. Coleman had a handgun, the father a machete and the third man a shotgun. The altercation may have started on the father’s front lawn, or it might have been just off it. Coleman wasn’t on the father’s property when he was killed.

Beyond that, not much is known for certain, other than the shooter has not been arrested or charged. Why? Because it’s an ongoing investigation — police can’t disclose more information, they say.

In doing so, the police are asking the community to trust them.

Trust was eroded, not built, at a public meeting Tuesday night with Police Chief Ken Burton and a Department of Justice official, according to several people who attended.

Coleman’s mother, Winona Coleman-Broadus, was frustrated by Burton’s non-answers: “Everything is hidden behind, 'It's an ongoing investigation, we can't share that,’” she told Missourian reporters Wednesday.

No reasonable person expects investigators to reveal all their evidence, suppositions and questions at every point along the way. After a month, though, shouldn’t there be an expectation that the police can answer some of the questions?

There are documents that the police, by law, can’t release. Records deemed to be part of the “investigative report” are closed. It doesn’t mean the police can’t talk about the case, but they can’t just fork over every scrap of paper.  Incident reports and arrest reports are public. Incident reports are those initial records of what happened, the names of the victims and “immediate facts and circumstances surrounding the initial report of a crime,” according to the Missouri Sunshine Law. (Look at Section 610.100 if you want details.)

Missourian reporters said earlier this week they were denied the Coleman incident report. A police spokesman denies the denial, and I’ll take him at his word.

When the report arrived late Friday afternoon, almost every pertinent detail had been redacted. The "incident narrative" merely says "homicide."

It wasn't a report. It was simply a cover page of one. A citizen wouldn't be able to even determine the name of the officer who filed the report.

There’s a gap between what the police can’t say and what they won’t say.

Tuesday night’s meeting began with a request for certain members of the public — the press — to leave. It was a curious action for a gathering in which fliers were handed out urging people to attend.

NAACP local chapter president Mary Ratliff made the press ban announcement. She, Chief Burton and Rita Valenciano, the Department of Justice representative, had requested the ouster. Valenciano really didn’t want the press there – I’m told she made her own announcement three times during the meeting.

Organizers of the meeting aren’t the government. They can say who can and can’t be there. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

I’m told that about 20 minutes into the meeting, one person rose to complain, saying “we’re all the media.” That person has a point.

Self-defense cases are rarely simple. I’m sure there are complex legal and investigative questions that need to be answered. I’d like a better sense of what hurdles are preventing answers. We haven’t heard from the people directly involved. I’d like to hear from the father and son. I’m sure they have a perspective far different than that of Coleman’s mother.

Tuesday’s meeting certainly accomplished one thing. It made the case a more visible part of the community discussion. It clearly should be.  


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