Friday’s Trib (6-3) contained a letter to the editor in defense of Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell. I knew the author, Mike Hanagan, as an articulate and outspoken officer and co-worker in the ’90s, before he earned his law degree and moved into a new career. At the risk of re-stirring the pot, his remarks about the controversial events surrounding Zina Linnik’s homicide raise a corollary topic worthy of discussion.
To paraphrase, Mike states that the information withheld from the public–the delay in initiating an Amber Alert already mentioned ad nauseum–was never for public consumption. He argues that internal police issues are best handled outside the public forum, a rationale consistent with Chief Ramsdell’s actions following the July 2007 incident.
Maybe he’s right, but this is not about handling internal issues. Rather, it is about a department’s choice of the substance and amount of truth it willingly discloses to the public.
To play devil’s advocate, let’s consider the viewpoint of the many vocal individuals who recently clamored for the chief to be disciplined following this mess. Their collective claim was that the public has a right to know how well its police department is handling such troubling and sensational crimes. Fail in that, they claimed, and you have breached the public trust.
But there’s a reason why police departments don’t put all of their paperwork on the front porch every morning like a newspaper. It is because the police and the press are usually not on the same page.
On one side there is a police agency whose job is to conduct sensitive investigations involving cases easily tainted by overt attention and prying eyes. In one extreme example, the King County Sheriff’s Department felt they had an excellent opportunity to catch the Green River Killer early on in the investigation. At a remote site where the killer had recently dumped several of his victims’ bodies, the department conducted an expensive and involved stakeout. Cops hiding in the brush proved too good a visual for a local news crew to pass up, so they sent their helicopter to film live for a watching public. The blown stakeout became fodder for angry cops who loudly speculated that the media’s irresponsible action cost the lives of subsequent victims.
But sometimes the cops don’t get it right, and that’s when the dogged work of the fifth estate is so important. Police agencies can be inconsistent in sharing information, such as police reports and comments on internal controversy. However, there are is local example of how the lack of oversight can be costly: former Chief David Brame. His heinous crime shocked the media as well as the community. It’s no wonder that the lack of a light being shone on that police administration has put a high beam on the current one.
It’s going to be tough to change the attitude. When I was a young cop on the beat a reporter stuck his microphone in my face and asked my opinion about some police controversy du jour. I made the mistake of attempting a sincere answer but instead got to watch the 2D version of myself eat a foot sandwich. I have since realized my error, both in opening my mouth and in short-changing journalists.
In the final analysis, both police officers and journalists have an important job to do, and it would be easier and more effective if their begrudging relationship was based on more cooperation and trust.
And trust is a two way street.