Who was Omar Mateen? What happened inside Pulse nightclub during a shooting that left 49 people dead, not including Mateen himself?
City, state and federal officials aren’t helping the public answer these questions.
The city of Orlando has so far refused to release 911 tapes from the shooter, citing several exemptions that some public records experts say don’t hold up to scrutiny.
Journalists have also battled with county and state agencies over Mateen’s school records, his brief stint as a a Florida Department of Corrections officer, and emergency calls from his family home that date to the turn of the millennium.
“As a rule, when government clamps down on access to information, it causes more questions and more concerns than if they went ahead and released the information,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the St. Petersburg-based First Amendment Foundation. “Why are they holding onto these records when they don’t have to? It’s creating doubt.”
On Monday, the FBI released a heavily redacted transcript of a 911 call Mateen made to Orlando police during the shooting. Stricken from the record were the name of the person or organization Mateen pledged loyalty to during the call, likely the Islamic State. In a news conference, federal officials said they did not wish to “re-victimize” the families of those who died at Pulse.
“Part of the redacting is meant to not give credence to individuals who have done terrorist acts in the past,” said Ronald Hopper, the FBI’s assistant special agent in charge of the investigation, at a news conference. “We’re not going to propagate their rhetoric, their violent rhetoric.”
That prompted criticism from Gov. Rick Scott, who himself has been accused of not heeding public disclosure laws in the past.
Appearing on Fox News, Scott attacked U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who had earlier talked about the government’s desire to avoid putting families through further pain.
“I have no idea what she means,” Scott said in comments reported by Politico. “But I can tell you what: I have gone to funerals, I’ve sat down and cried with the parents. I’ve gone and visited individuals in the hospitals. They are grieving. Now, they want answers. ... We all would like answers. She should release everything that doesn’t impact the investigation. ... We have to get serious about destroying ISIS.”
The FBI did not release three conversations between Mateen and hostage negotiators totaling about 28 minutes.
Two dozen media outlets have requested the release of 911 calls and radio communications from the night of the shooting. Florida’s public record laws generally allow for the release of such calls.
But Orlando has refused. In a letter dated June 16, City Attorney Mayanne Downs said releasing 911 calls would be a violation of a Florida law that makes photographs, videos or audio recordings showing “the killing of a person” exempt from disclosure, available only to family members.
That law was opposed as overly broad and restrictive by transparency advocates when it went into effect following the deaths of two Tampa-area police officers in 2011. The deaths were caught on a police dashboard camera.
Monday’s disclosure by the FBI calls into question whether the exemption cited by Orlando is relevant.
The statute applies to “all acts or events that cause or otherwise relate to the death of any human being, including any related acts or events immediately preceding or subsequent to the acts or events that were the proximate cause of death.”
The FBI transcript indicates that no shots were fired in the three hours between Mateen’s initial assault on the club and his death at the hands of police. That means the calls likely do not record any gunshots or deaths.
“What the feds are doing by releasing transcripts may put pressure on Orlando,” said Petersen, of the First Amendment Foundation. “Even though it’s partially redacted, what’s the point of holding onto it for Orlando now?”
And state legislators recently amended the public-records law to apply only to on-duty law enforcement officers. Those changes don’t go into effect until Oct. 1, meaning news organizations may have to go to court to seek access before then.
The city also said the tapes are part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
But Daniel Bevarly, interim executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said Florida law generally treats such calls as public.
Exceptions include 911 calls that contain information investigators can use to solve a case.
That wouldn’t seem to apply to Pulse because the shooter Mateen is dead.
Other local and state agencies have relented after initially telling the media they could not release information on Mateen because the FBI was investigating.
As a result, reporters have obtained information on Mateen’s propensity for violence that dates as far back as third grade, his parents’ history of domestic disputes, and a mental health evaluation clearing Mateen to carry a firearm that was signed by a psychologist who said she never met him.
Then, late on Friday, the Florida Department of Corrections released a file on Mateen showing he’d been dismissed from an officer training program in 2007 after joking about bringing a gun to class. A superior wrote that the incident, which occurred two days before the deadly Virginia Tech shooting but was reported shortly after, was “extremely disturbing.”
“We believe these are public records under Florida law and the fact that a federal agency is investigating doesn’t change state law,” said Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, president of the Florida Society of News Editors and executive editor of the Miami Herald. “State news organizations, as well as national news outlets, have been waiting patiently for these records. Now it seems clear that the city of Orlando is simply stalling.”