Friday, January 28, 2011

Shelby Co. Sheriff under fire, risks possible violation of 1st Amendment

By Mike Ullery

Chief Photographer

Shelby County has been a busy place for news lately. Unfortunately, most of the news is not of the “good” variety. One of the last things that citizens of any community want to experience is a lack of trust of their highest-ranking law enforcement officer.

Citizens of Shelby County are watching a drama unfold, one involving Dean Kimpel, their sheriff. Kimpel is under investigation for allegations of sexual assault made against him by a former law enforcement officer.

The situation has become bad enough that Kimpel’s own political party has asked that he resign.

This past week, Kimpel stepped things up a notch by filing a criminal complaint report against Kathy Leese, a freelance writer from the Sidney Daily News who has been investigating allegations against the sheriff.

Leese, like any good reporter, has been keeping abreast of the allegations against Kimpel. As more information emerges, Leese has contacted the sheriff, offering him the opportunity to respond. She has also asked questions of the sheriff.

The questions asked by Leese deserve answers. The sheriff is a public figure, elected by the citizens of Shelby County. These allegations are not going to just go away.

Kimpel has the same rights as every other citizen. He is innocent until proven guilty. He has the right to not incriminate himself. However, Kimpel is the sheriff of the community which elected him to the highest office in the county. He owes it to those citizens to be forthright.

However unfair it may be, public officials forfeit many of their rights the day they take out petitions to run for office. We hold public officials to a higher degree of accountability.

Leese’s job is to find the answers to questions and keep the public informed with accurate information. That is her job. That is her obligation to the citizens of her community.

In this case, her questions are aimed at the county sheriff. They are aimed that direction because the sheriff allegedly put himself into a compromising situation.

The fact that law enforcement officers wear a badge does not make them any less susceptible to temptation that any of the rest of us. Kimpel is no different, he is human. His job; however, requires that he behave in a manner which reflects the trust the citizens have placed in him.

Kimpel has now made the situation more volatile by alleging that a reporter, a person to whom guardianship of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution has been entrusted, has committed a criminal act, by doing her job. In doing so, Kimpel risks violating the First Amendment, not to mention, unjustifiably accusing a citizen of his community of a crime … just so that he doesn’t have to answer questions about his conduct.

One of my thoughts is that Kimpel’s actions could be construed as an attempt to blackmail a member of the media.

Dean Kimpel may be innocent of any wrongdoing. He may be guilty. At this point, we do not know. What we do know, is that Kimpel was elected by the citizens of Shelby County to hold the office of Sheriff. The person holding that office owes to his constituents that he keep them informed of incidents which affect them. That includes incidents in which the sheriff may, personally, be involved.That is his job.

What Kimpel may not realize is that members of the media take very seriously their obligation to keep the public informed of newsworthy events. That allegations of unethical or criminal behavior have been made against the sheriff of Shelby County is a very newsworthy event. Kimpel may choose to attempt to silence a reporter by alleging criminal acts, but, in doing so, he has done nothing more than unlock the door and invite more media scrutiny.

The worst of it is that his actions further erode the confidence of the citizens of Shelby County in their sheriff’s office. Kimpel’s actions reflect on his entire staff. That is sad, for they are not the ones who deserve the scrutiny and criticism.

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