Yantis investigation: Q & A with producer Seth Ogilvie
Sometimes a story is too complex for a half-hour show. And sometimes, new details present themselves too late to make the final cut.
As producer Seth Ogilvie demonstrated in last week’s Idaho Reports, Deputies Cody Roland and Brian Wood gave different descriptions of what happened the night rancher Jack Yantis was shot and killed. Roland says Yantis shoved Wood, while Wood says Yantis never touched him. Roland recalled Yantis yelling at deputies from his ATV, while Wood said Yantis confronted them while walking.
That, of course, muddied the waters for investigators tasked with figuring out what happened that night, especially because the stories Wood and Roland told were generally consistent on major events.
One thing Ogilvie discovered while sifting through hours of videos and interviews: Immediately after the shooting, Roland and Wood were alone together in an ambulance for an hour before Corporal Mark Wright of Idaho State Police showed up to the scene.
Was this avoidable? No single policy can cover all the hypothetical situations that might happen in the field, but after interviewing experts in officer-involved shootings, Ogilvie offered some ideas in this Q and A web extra. You can watch the video, or read the transcript below.
Melissa: So you started looking into officer involved shootings well before the Yantis case even started. Can you tell me a little bit more about the process and what piqued your interest?
Seth: Before it even got popular, before the Guardian went into it, before the Statesmen went into, we started this about two years ago. I like to track it as three associate producers ago: We have a new associate producer now, Thomas, and this goes all the way back to Kevin our first associate producer, so it gives you an idea how long we’ve been working on this story.
Basically, I got fascinated with the fact that we don’t have any good data on officer-involved shootings. We started going through FOIAing local police departments and local sheriff’s offices trying to figure out how many of these officer involved shootings, critical incidents, actually occur in Idaho. And it’s really hard to get good numbers. I think we’ve developed a really good database right now, but it’s, you know, some from departments, some from media reports, and it’s kind of this cobbled-together deal because the information is just not really out there.
Melissa: I want to back up for a second because I helped to compile some of this information with our last associate producer, Brad Iverson-Long. He did the bulk of the work. He did an amazing job…
Seth: He really did.
Melissa: He sent public records request to every single policy agency, I think, except for tribal law enforcement, in the state of Idaho. So on every level, county, city, state, everything across the board. And we got different results from those public records requests. What were some of the things that surprised you?
Seth: Well, I think the biggest surprise — I don’t think there was any malfeasance, or incompetence — this is just not something people are trained to keep records of. I don’t know how many times Brad would get a FOIA, Freedom of Information Act, request back and people would say we don’t remember any.
Melissa: And specifically we asked for all instances of officer-involved shootings in the last 15 years, from 2000 to 2015.
Seth: Exactly, and I’d be looking at reports online that either came out of the Press Tribune or the Post Register, whatever it might be. They’d have one, I can see it here. All they had to do was put a Google search in and they would have come up with it, but their records don’t show it, which kind of scared me a little bit. I mean, to me, it pressed upon me that we need to be keeping better data on this, and hopefully the story that the Statesmen did, the Guardian project, and the project we did, will kind of at least give the agencies a head start, and they’ll do a better job of keeping (track of) this, because it frustrates Idaho State Police. I know it frustrates the FBI. The President has weighed in on this saying we need to keep better tabs on this because as I asked the US Attorney Wendy Olson in the package, if we don’t know how many of these events there actually are, it’s really hard to know if they are all justified.
Melissa: And by events you mean any time an officer discharges his or her weapon?
Seth: And ideally, that’s what we would have. Because regardless of whether a person dies or not at the hands of an officer, is not necessarily as important as whether or not they were shot at because sometimes you miss, that doesn’t mean that the training, that the procedure, that the officer did anything different, it just means they missed. So having a good idea how many times officers shoot at citizens is good to have.
Melissa: Can you talk a little bit more about the process and why you were so fascinated by this in the first place? I’m really curious, because you’ve been pretty obsessed with this for about the last year and a half.
Seth: Well, I’m normally obsessed with metrics in general because I don‘t like policies, I don’t like departments that aren’t doing something for a reason, that don’t have a measurable goal, so we can go ahead and find out (if) they meeting that goal. So, that was the really the first reason I got obsessed with this: The fact that we don’t have any measurable data on this. The second thing was when the Yantis shooting actually happened, because up until that point it’s a data story, or it’s a story where … there wasn’t really a controversial incident in Idaho recently. The media focus wasn’t really on officer-involved shootings, so when the Yantis event happened, that’s really when we started bearing down and saying this is the way we can bring people into the story, because this is an event people care about. All that being said, I like to go back to … this is a story that follows the Bruce Newcomb rule … we had to let it ripen. It took a long time to ripen. We had to go through the entire investigation. We had to compile all this data. It took almost 2 years, but I think it was worth it, because at the end of the day, I think we have a compelling story and I think we have a lot of great data for people to look at.
Melissa: Had the Yantis shooting not happened — because you had Brad Iverson-Long working on this for months before the Yantis shooting — how would your story have been different? Would it have focused more on police training? Would it have focused on the fact that we just don’t collect data on officer involved shootings in the first place? And how did the Yantis shooting change the trajectory of that besides just having a framework for the story?
Seth: Well, initially we were working on a story — The policeman, the dog and the woman — that we were going to focus on these three events: One where a dog was shot, one where a woman was shot…
Melissa: A pregnant woman?
Seth: A pregnant woman.
Seth: And one where just a gentleman was shot after a pursuit, and kind of looking at the different ways in which procedure and the events led up to these events happening. And also the terrible irony that the same day that the dog was shot up in Coeur d’Alene, I think it was by what used to be a Java coffee shop up there, a pregnant woman was shot in Sandpoint. And we all focused on the dog.
Melissa: Specifically, she was shot after she was lunging at officers in a hospital parking lot with a knife.
Seth: And there was bodycam video of that, you can see the event play out, I think you can still, with bodycam footage. You can still reach your own conclusion because it’s still subjective on what happened. I mean her distance to the cops, you could say maybe that was not a reasonable shooting. I’m sure if a professional — We never got to this point — If a professional sat down and walked us through procedure, they’d probably give you a reason why it was a justified shooting, because that officer was cleared as far as I know, as far as what they did. So the procedures that led up to those shootings that was kind of what we wanted to explore. The Yantis event doesn’t have that, and the Yantis event doesn’t really have a real good, step-by-step, kind of roadmap to what even happened at the event. So, it put us in a very different place than where we started, because we are dealing with an event (where) we almost have more of a detective story, because we had to go through and figure out what happened, as opposed to a procedure story that we kind of initially were looking at.
Melissa: And you did a great job with the Yantis package that you put together, but I know you had 17 minutes that ended up on Idaho Reports. I also know there is a lot that didn’t make it into the story, so what didn’t make it into the show?
Seth: Well, the big thing that didn’t make it, is something that didn’t make it in not because of time, but because I didn’t find it until almost the last minute. Going through all the documents, all the videos, going through all the interviews, the one thing that kept sitting in the back of my mind and pestering me as far as the story goes, was they said the same things, but when you watch them re-enact them, they did them differently.
Melissa: Because there are videos of them walking the officers through this is exactly what happened at the scene of the shooting.
Seth: So the three main events, first being the interaction between Yantis and the officers — “Get that expletive away from my animal” — they demonstrate it very differently. One has Yantis on an ATV, one has Yantis load his rifle walking by. When they throw the gun at the end, one is up throwing the gun after taking a huge step, the other one is on the ground. And then there is this moment right before the shooting, which I think frustrated the investigators the most. Because normally when you go through a high stress moment like that, there is a lot of psychological data that says those are the moments you remember. But there is a donut hole for those officers, and they don’t remember those key five seconds that led up to the shooting, and they can’t explain why they really shot the rancher. So you have these 3 moments, and they are kind of similar when they explain what they are, but they are very different when they demonstrate them. How could this have happened, why are they different?
Well it turns out, and we found this and you can look on our website and you will see this video if you just scroll down the page, that they were in an ambulance for about an hour before Master Corporal Mark D. Wright got there. He asks Sheriff Zollman where are they. On the video he says they’ve been in the ambulance for an hour. They had time to kind of reflect on what happened.
I’m not saying they prepared a story. I’m not saying they’re lying, but they had time to interact and say “What did you see?” “What did I see?” And in those very high stress moments, sometimes that’s the story that goes forward. It’s not necessarily that you’re lying, but you kind of start mis-remembering things, what you heard rather than what you saw, especially in an event like that. You’re struggling to put together what seems like an incredible moment and make it real. And anything helps, and sometime you pick up a little piece from your partner, and he picks up a little bit from you.
Melissa: Were there any other things that you wish you could have driven home in this story? Because a half-hour show goes by so fast, I know.
Seth: We tried to talk a little bit about this, but the administrative review process is key, because when events like this, when little events happen across the state, if you don’t go through an administrative review process with the officer, if you allow them to quit, there is no paper trail basically.
Melissa: And can you tell me, can you walk me through what an administrative review process would look like if you’re not familiar with it?
Seth: An administrative review process would basically, it would go in and evaluate the policies that led to an incident, or it would go in and evaluate the actions that led to an incident, or just evaluate the behavior of an officer, and it would go through and develop a paper trail, so that paper trail can then be turned over to POST, and POST can decide whether or not that is an officer that they’re willing to certify anymore. Without the sheriff’s office or police department turning them over to POST the likelihood is they won’t know, with a huge event like Yantis of course it’s on POST’s radar. They’re going to look into whether or not Roland and Wood should still be certified, that will happen. But let’s say an officer in Challis got a DUI and decided to quit, even though that’s in the Repository there is no way that POST would necessarily be drawn attention to that to evaluate whether or not that is an officer that’d they still like to be certified. So, it’s all up to let’s say Challis police department, or the sheriff’s agency out there, to do the administrative review, turn that information over to POST, so that person from Challis doesn’t end up with another police department. And the reason why it is so important for it to be done on that side is POST is expensive and the police departments and sheriffs’ offices pay for POST, so let’s say…
Melissa: POST training?
Seth: POST training, and it takes about a year to get your POST training. You are a law enforcement officer from day one, but you need to complete your POST training within that year period or else you can’t be a law enforcement officer. That takes money, so let’s say I’m the Adams County Sheriff, and if I have a person coming into my agency who already has their POST certification, that saves me a ton of money.
One of the officers in the Yantis police involved shooting had left a police agency before that under kind of questionable circumstances. It sounds like he quit before the administrative review was happening, but he got on the with Adams County Sheriff’s office, probably because he had POST certification. It’s not to say they were overlooking this, but sometimes you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Sometimes you are like, “Oh, this a guy who can start day one, I don’t have to pay for his POST training. Maybe it’s not in my best interest to really explore his background,” because it’s up to them to explore what happened before.
Melissa: And to clarify, this is speculation based on reporting you have done, but you haven’t been able to reach the Sheriff [of Adams County]?
Seth: No, I’ve made several calls to Sheriff Zollman. He’s returned one, told me he didn’t have time to talk, but I have like 5 or 6 calls out to him, and we haven’t actually been able to chat.
Melissa: So, what’s the solution here? Would it be a statewide policy that any time there is a complaint against an officer or an event like this, that administrative review must go forward, even if the officer quits or resigns?
Seth: Well, that would obviously be one. But I mean, as you would know, sheriffs and police chiefs are probably not wanting to turn over that freedom to the state of Idaho. And it becomes another issue of local control, versus whether the State of Idaho should be setting this policy. Right now it’s incumbent on, sadly, the citizens of that area. You know, if in Boise, we were upset about the administrative review that the police department was doing, we would get up in arms. We would call the mayor and hopefully something would happen. If the Ada County sheriff did the same thing, we as citizens of Ada County would get up in arms and maybe vote out the sheriff. There is probably going to be a referendum on Sheriff Zollman coming up here in the next election cycle. When you go …
Melissa: And that doesn’t mean necessarily that he is going to be voted out.
Seth: No, it doesn’t.
Melissa: But that certainly plays into the election.
Seth: When you look and see the campaign signs, his challenger has a lot of “Justice for Jack” signs right next to his campaign signs, so you can see where that election is breaking down. He’s still a very popular sheriff, I talked to a lot of people who really like him, he may survive it, but that’s kind of what citizens have in that area to force some change, force an administrative review without a large statewide policy.
The other thing that I really wish I could have gotten into the story was the agreements that sheriffs’ departments have for critical incidents, and police departments as well. Adams County had to go to ITD because it didn’t have an agreement in place. The Valley, Caldwell, Nampa, Boise (departments) already have an agreement. So if an incident happens there, all of a sudden this critical incident task force kicks into action. Sometimes they’re there as quickly as 2-3 minutes. There are some agreements up between Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls. There are some agreements in east Idaho that are already set up, and that allows for quick changeover at the scene. Because at the end of the day, it’s, this is a very bad metaphor, so I apologize, but it’s like the person being investigated is in charge of their own crime scene.
Melissa: Or at least the department is.
Seth: Yeah, exactly. So, you want that to be handed over to a third party as quickly as possible. In the case of Adams County, it took 4 or 5 or 6 hours before the scene was secured by people outside the Adams County Sheriff’s Department.
Melissa: By Idaho State Police, right?
Seth: Right, by ISP. Because it just took a while for them to figure out who was going to investigate. It took them a while to get there. If they had a pre-arranged agreement in place, you’d think someone would have been on the scene quicker. And that’s really important, not just for the sake of the scene, but also for people’s trust in that this investigation was carried out and nothing was manipulated. It’s not to say that anything was, but there is always that appearance.