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

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, HOST:

Investigators looking at last weekend's mass shooting at a birthday party in Dadeville, Ala., have been tight-lipped about what they know and what they don't know. The shooting left four people dead and dozens more injured.

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JEREMY BURKETT: We're going to be very careful with everything that we say, with everything that we do, because we absolutely are going to stay focused on the families and the victims.

DOMONOSKE: That's Sergeant Jeremy Burkett of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, or ALEA, at a press conference last week. Many people in Dadeville have been frustrated that there's not been more information released about this shooting. So far, police have arrested six people, including a juvenile. All of them are charged with reckless murder. Police have not released a motive.

Challen Stephens is an investigative reporter and editor for Alabama Media Group and has extensively covered policing in Alabama. He joins us now. Thanks for being here.

CHALLEN STEPHENS: Thanks for having me.

DOMONOSKE: How has information in this case been released so far?

STEPHENS: Well, you've - you quoted from the press conference there. That's been one of the main outlets - the few times they've spoken to the press. And there hasn't been much information. There's just been basic info about the arrests. We're up to six arrests now.

DOMONOSKE: Right. And this investigation is being handled by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. Not releasing very many details - is that normal for this agency?

STEPHENS: That is typical for ALEA. That includes the State Bureau of Investigation and the state troopers. They do have a culture of sort of limited transparency. They take over a lot of high-profile shootings, and then we don't get much information. Although in this case, I can see what some of the difficulty was. This is a very complicated, confusing case. You have six - or at least six accused shooters at this point, so they probably didn't know what exactly to say. Although they could have come out and said something like that - that this is a confusing case and just assured a nervous public at that point.

DOMONOSKE: Right. Alabama's Supreme Court ruled in 2021 that police investigative records are exempt from public records requests. How has that changed access to information in the state?

STEPHENS: Well, that's been a blow. So this was a ruling that came after a weekly newspaper in Mobile had sued, seeking some police records around a case in Baldwin County. The ruling was 8 to 1 by the Supreme Court that just about every investigative record - so that's 911 calls, body cam, any notes, materials - are not public records. They didn't set any time limit on it. It's not clear if they ever become public records. They already didn't release a lot of this. And interestingly, there was one dissenting vote. It was the chief justice, a conservative, and he said we might as well rename it the closed records act as far as the public goes. But they won't be able to see anything about police anymore.

DOMONOSKE: You mentioned there's no timeline. I just want to clarify here. Is this just for active, open investigations, or is it also for investigations that are closed?

STEPHENS: That's what's not clear in this ruling. They just spoke to investigative materials, and they did not say active or dormant cases. There was no distinction. So it's not clear until it's challenged, until that's addressed, and it could get worse. It could become a blanket ruling affecting all investigative material.

DOMONOSKE: Right. And more broadly, is Alabama's public records law written in a way that makes it easy to get records?

STEPHENS: It's sort of - it - philosophically, the answer is yes. It is written in a way that supposes transparency and public access to any written materials and - from the government. However, in reality, there is no teeth. There's no appeal mechanism. There's no timeline. If an agency denies us public records, which happens quite often with ALEA, the only appeal is through the courts. So you get a lawyer, and it could take years. And you can end up with a very bad precedent, such as this 2021 ruling.

DOMONOSKE: Challen, can I just ask you, over the last week with these occasional and brief pressers about this horrific shooting, were you surprised by the lack of information that was released?

STEPHENS: No, not at all. So in 2022, we did a lot of work on the town of Brookside, which was a town that had overaggressive policing. It was an issue that united Republicans and Democrats. There were three laws passed. A lot of the police were forced out. There were several state investigations. And so we began to look into other speed traps around the state. And we got cooperation from the Department of Revenue, from the towns themselves - would provide public records, but ALEA would provide us nothing. They wouldn't even tell us how many speeding tickets are written each year, much less give us any kind of data. So this is very much in keeping with how they run things - tight-lipped.

DOMONOSKE: Challen Stephens, investigative reporter and editor for al.com. Thank you.

STEPHENS: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
Allison Mollenkamp
Allison Mollenkamp (she/her) is a fellow with NPR's Investigations Unit, where she's worked to cover election denial and the fallout from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. You may have previously heard her on Nebraska Public Radio, where she led national Murrow Award-winning coverage of the state's 2019 floods. Mollenkamp holds a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor of arts in English from the University of Alabama.