Statesman Editorial: Idaho State Police need to answer for crash investigation, dysfunction

A quest for justice and a turn toward a deeper transparency seem the only antidotes to a poison of dysfunction plaguing the Idaho State Police these days.

It’s time Gov. Butch Otter initiates a probe into this unit, beginning with the symptoms surrounding a crash investigation three and a half years ago that has put the courts between ISP line and command officers.

Something is seriously wrong.

The family of a New Plymouth man still grieves and looks for answers that never come concerning his death in 2011 in a horrific collision with a former Payette County deputy who was en route — at faster than 100 mph at times — on U.S. 30 after a 911 call from a child who said a stranger was in his house.

Nobody was ever convicted of anything in the death of Barry Johnson, then 65 — though nobody has ever disputed that Deputy Scott Sloan’s cruiser slammed into the driver’s side of Johnson’s Jeep at somewhere between 80 mph and 90 mph in a 55 mph zone as he was attempting to pass Johnson, who was trying to make a left turn off U.S. 30 that October day. Johnson died at the scene.

An ISP team took charge of the crash investigation. The expected outcome: Look for criminal wrongdoing, make sense out of this tragedy and maybe learn something so it would never happen again. But instead, there has only been chaos and controversy, and allegations of a cover-up, which have created divisions at the agency.

If you believe the sworn testimony coming out of whistleblower lawsuits against ISP — which include accounts from ISP crash investigators, reported by the Statesman’s Cynthia Sewell on Sunday — there is also cause to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong in the ranks.

Some present and former ISP troopers and officers say that a final crash report that was critical of Sloan’s actions was rejected by their bosses. An investigator alleges that he was forced to alter the Sloan crash report. Charges of vehicular manslaughter were dropped by Gem County Prosecutor Richard Linville, who said he was unable to proceed because of conflicting ISP reports of the accident.

Since Col. Ralph Powell was appointed ISP director by Otter in March of 2013 — and reappointed earlier this year — it is the governor who must lead the hunt for answers for Idahoans who are left to wonder about a possible cover-up or interference in the investigation.

According to the contents of an ISP interoffice email (reported by Sewell), there is something that doesn’t square with our sense of transparency in this case — the July 2013 ISP mandate that, henceforth, draft crash investigation reports would be destroyed.

Why? Isn’t this evidence? Aren’t the honest opinions and conclusions of the crash investigation team worthy to be weighed? The Ada County Sheriff’s Office does not destroy such information. Trying to bury it is hardly the effort toward transparency that we expect from our law enforcement agencies.

The last thing we want to hear is that a series of whistleblower lawsuits, the first slated for trial in October, have been settled and money has been passed around. Idahoans deserve to know the truth. So does the family. And if the truth leads to the discovery that law enforcement officers have betrayed our trust, we need to know this sooner rather than later.

Statesman editorials are the unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, email editorial@idahostatesman.com.

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