Fayette County

Nearly nine months after Scott County deputy was shot, police still haven’t released records

Nearly nine months after a Scott County deputy was shot by fellow police officers, the Kentucky State Police still have not released documents related to the investigation.

Scott County Deputy Jaime Morales was shot Sept. 11 in the back in a confrontation at a Scott County rest area that killed a fugitive wanted in a Florida bank robbery.

The Kentucky State Police Critical Incident Response Team investigated the shooting. The investigation concluded Morales’ injuries came from a law enforcement weapon, but it was not clear which weapon, the Scott County Sheriff’s office announced March 20.

The sheriff’s office said the information was presented to a grand jury on March 7 but the grand jury declined to charge anyone.

A month after the shooting, the Lexington Herald-Leader requested a copy of the investigative file on the Morales shooting. The Kentucky State Police said the investigation was still open and therefore those records were exempt from the state’s Open Records Act.

The Herald-Leader sent a second Open Records Act request on March 21, the day after the sheriff’s department said the case had been closed. The Kentucky State Police records custodian responded in a letter dated March 27 but postmarked April 11. “Due to the storage location of this file, the records are not immediately available,” the letter said.

On April 26, state police sent a second response saying “due to the size of the file, the records are not immediately available.” State police said they would send another letter updating the newspaper on the status of its request by May 30.

Kentucky State Police Sgt. Josh Lawson, a KSP spokesman, said delays occurred because there is one person dedicated to processing open records requests for the entire agency. The number of documents in the file also was a factor. The single employee must go through the file and redact information that cannot be released.

“The case is over 1,000 pages with many audio recordings,” Lawson said. “All of these pages must be viewed and all audio files must be listened to by our sole records custodian to determine if any information is protected from disclosure such as birth dates, social security numbers etc.”

Lawson could not say when the records would be released.

Amye Bensenhaver, a retired assistant attorney general who wrote open records decisions for the office, said state police are subverting the intent of the Open Records Act by failing to timely disclose the information. Lack of adequate staff is not an excuse, she said. Bensenhaver and Jennifer Pitzer Brown have formed the Kentucky Open Government Coalition, which advocates for transparency and accountability in government.

“Their refusal to allocate adequate resources to their statutory duties under the Open Records Act is not an excuse for noncompliance,” Bensenhaver said.

In a 2015 decision, the attorney general’s office wrote: “the need to review and redact records ... is an ordinary part of fulfilling an open records request. It does not, in and of itself, constitute a reason for additional delay.”

In a 2017 decision, the attorney general said “irrelevant factors,” including the volume of other open records requests, do not “constitute legitimate reasons for delay.”

In that decision, the attorney general found the Grant County Fiscal Court violated the Open Records Act by delaying the release of emails of Grant County officials. The county attorney, who was processing the requests, had said he was severely understaffed, causing delays in the fulfillment of the open records request.

“Nevertheless it is ultimately the fiscal court’s responsibility to make public records timely available. A public agency’s own inefficiency must not thwart an otherwise proper open records request,” the office wrote in the July 7 opinion.

Morales was left partially paralyzed after the shooting.

The shooting occurred at a rest area off Interstate 75. Sheriff’s deputies and Georgetown police officers were called to assist U.S. Marshals in apprehending a 57-year-old robbery suspect out of Florida named Edward Reynolds.

Reynolds was killed during the shooting.

Members of a special response team were approaching Reynolds’ vehicle at the rest stop when he was “alerted to their presence” and tried to drive away, according to the sheriff’s office.

Deputies and police officers gave multiple commands for Reynolds to stop his vehicle. Law enforcement officers from both agencies blocked Reynolds’ escape, and he pointed a handgun at the officers, according to the sheriff’s office.

Officers and deputies with both agencies then opened fire on Reynolds, according to the sheriff’s office.

The state police investigation concluded that “while Reynolds presented a deadly threat toward officers, he was incapacitated before he could actually fire his weapon,” according to the statement from the sheriff’s office.

“All the officers present that night were performing their duty in a tense and uncertain environment while attempting to apprehend a dangerous individual,” the sheriff’s office said in the statement. “The criminal actions of Mr. Reynolds led to the need of law enforcement to take him into custody for the safety of the general public. Mr. Reynolds then made the encounter a deadly force issue by raising his handgun and pointing it at the officers.”