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THE CONDIT CASE

Has a Wily D.C. Police Chief Outfoxed the Nosy Media?

July 22, 2001|JOSEPH D. McNAMARA

STANFORD — Why does D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey continue to deny that Rep. Gary A. Condit is a suspect in the mysterious disappearance of Chandra Levy? If the Modesto congressman is not a suspect, why would D.C. police wish to question him, want to search his Washington condo and subject him to DNA scrutiny and a lie-detector test? Is Ramsey being purposefully devious, or is he engaging in good police work?

Ramsey has been accused by some TV commentators of playing favorites with a congressman and of employing Clintonesque word play--a missing-person case is not a crime--to avoid declaring Condit a suspect. Other observers have suggested that he should have named Condit as a suspect, immediately hauled him in and searched his condo for evidence. If the chief had taken this advice, he probably would have earned more cheers than jeers. But by not playing hardball, Ramsey has advanced the investigation.

It's the job of the news media to inform the public and speculate about Condit's actions. It is the job of the police to enforce the law consistent with the ends of justice. Both functions are vital in a democracy, but there are times when they conflict, and Ramsey's conduct of the investigation illustrates that conflict.

It is axiomatic in police investigations that when one spouse or half of a romantic coupling is the victim of violence or suddenly and mysteriously disappears, the remaining party is not only a suspect, but usually the prime suspect. Yet, while the media have looked with suspicion at Condit, the police, even while making it clear they think Levy's disappearance is likely more than just a missing-person case, have steadfastly refused to point fingers.

Levy disappeared quite suddenly on May 1 under the kind of highly suspicious conditions that often point to foul play. She had told friends she was returning home to Modesto, Calif., to attend her graduation at USC. But Levy vanished without luggage and other personal belongings she would have taken with her. It has also been reported that Condit falsely told police that he was simply a "good friend" of the young woman and did not have a romantic relationship with her. Since then, media reports indicate that the married congressman actually was sexually intimate with Levy.

So why have police, at least publicly, remained so respectful of Condit? The police, like all government agencies, should be open to public scrutiny and accountable for their actions. Having said this, there are times when the police are justified in withholding information. Sometimes this is to protect the privacy of an innocent person. Other times it is to protect a future defendant's right to a fair trial and to protect evidence that could produce a conviction. That is why, although many crime reports and most of the documents detailing police work are ultimately open records, courts usually honor police discretion in not releasing certain information uncovered during criminal investigations.

Police may decide not to disclose specific details of sensational crimes so that they can subsequently ascertain whether or not someone confessing to the offense is seeking publicity or possesses information that could be known only to the perpetrator. In other instances, police do not disclose news that would alert suspects to destroy or tamper with evidence of a crime or to flee prosecution. Nor is it proper for the police to disclose sexual or other derogatory personal information that could ruin someone's reputation because the cops suspect the person of a crime. The precious presumption of innocence becomes a hollow hypocrisy when government officials are unable to convict someone, but conspire to destroy that person's reputation.

Nonetheless, under our system it is important that government discretion, or a "zone of privacy," not evolve into hiding official misconduct and blunders. Consequently, the definition of what constitutes a zone of privacy belongs to a free press, not a government bureaucrat or politician.

Under some circumstances, the police may not only withhold facts but are even justified in issuing false information. When I was a police chief, we once handled a case in which a 7-year-old was kidnapped and held for ransom. The kidnappers warned the child's parents not to notify the police or the youngster would be killed. But the parents did notify us, and an undercover police officer, posing as a member of the family, arranged to meet with the kidnappers to arrange for an exchange of money in payment for return of the child. Unfortunately, a reporter learned of the case and called to ask if we were investigating a kidnapping. Without hesitation, I denied that we were. The undercover cop succeeded in securing the boy's release, and the perpetrators were captured and convicted. However, if the kidnappers had learned through media news that the parents had contacted us, there is no doubt in my mind that the boy would have been murdered.

This illustrates Ramsey's dilemma. If he had named Condit as a suspect, it is likely that Condit's lawyers would have reflexively invoked his constitutional rights to remain silent and to be free from warrantless police searches--the same constitutional rights that we all possess. The congressman, however, would have paid a political price by being named as a suspect. Hence, the ironic possibility exists that Condit, far from being favored because he is a congressman, actually waived his rights to try to keep his job by avoiding being named as a suspect. As a result, D.C. police got a chance to look at evidence that would have been shielded from them.

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