AZCIR settles lawsuit against Cochise County Sheriff’s Office

The Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting has agreed to dismiss a lawsuit against the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office after securing records the agency repeatedly failed to disclose, as well as an $8,000 settlement to defray costs associated with the public records fight. 

After refusing to accept the incomplete records initially provided by the sheriff’s office in response to the lawsuit, the newsroom eventually received a more comprehensive list of the agency’s officers.

AZCIR filed the special action in Cochise County Superior Court in March after the sheriff’s office didn’t respond to an August records request, or to repeated attempts to discuss the request by phone and email.

The case was filed against Mark Dannels in his official capacity as the Cochise County Sheriff. Dannels declined to be interviewed for this story.

“We’re happy to finally have the public records we requested in August 2022, and to put this particularly egregious records law violation behind us,” said AZCIR Executive Director and Editor Brandon Quester. “It’s becoming increasingly difficult to gain access to public records in Arizona, let alone a basic response from agencies that hold them.”

After filing the special action, AZCIR lawyers from Ballard Spahr LLP negotiated with county attorneys to obtain staffing lists that included current and former sheriff’s office employees. The Cochise Cochise County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the $8,000 settlement during an executive session on April 25.

However, after a close examination of the documents provided by the agency, AZCIR determined the records were incomplete, and that redactions for specific officers were potentially unjustified. By cross-referencing public appearances and social media posts from the agency, as well as Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board records, AZCIR confirmed that at least seven officers were missing from the staffing lists.

In another round of discussions, AZCIR made clear it did not consider the records request fulfilled and would not settle the matter before receiving a more complete response.

The sheriff’s office subsequently provided updated staffing lists that included all but two of the names AZCIR identified as missing, plus more than a dozen employees not included on the initial response.

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“To give them credit where credit is due, they did go back and acknowledge that they didn’t give us everything that they should have — and gave us more,” said Matthew Kelley, a Ballard Spahr attorney who represented AZCIR.

AZCIR accepted the new list, with its redactions, and agreed to dismiss the case on June 19.

“We wanted to take this case because we understand the importance of public records to inform the public about what their government is doing,” Kelley said. “It’s important to fight for them and to hold agencies accountable when they don’t provide them.”

Kelley noted that such lawsuits do more than allow access to specific records, as they put “pressure on all government agencies to follow the law.”

“We got the records — that are public records in the first place — and we got a precedent to show other government agencies that they do need to follow the law and if they don’t, it can cost them,” Kelley said.

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