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The Public Has a Right to Know

Sniper case shows withholding details does not help police investigations.

October 27, 2002|Joseph D. McNamara

"I'm no hero," said truck driver Ron Lantz, whose phone call led to the apprehension of two men suspected of being responsible for the sniping rampage that left 10 people dead and three wounded in the Washington, D.C., area.

He's too modest. He not only recognized the suspects' New Jersey license plate and called 911, he also blocked the highway exit with his truck to prevent the men's escape until a law enforcement task force arrived to arrest the armed men in their blue Chevrolet Caprice.

Lantz is the classic example of a responsible citizen being alerted by vigorous news reporting and helping police capture two men considered very dangerous.

Underrecognized but equally heroic were the many uniformed officers who had stood guard at school grounds, gas stations, shopping malls and traffic barricades, knowing that they might be fully exposed to a sniper.

During my 35 years in policing, I always felt that having dedicated officers working with citizens well informed by the news media was the ideal way to minimize crime and disorder.

Ironically, early in the 22 days of terror permeating the nation's capital and its suburbs, some police leaders accused news organizations and their reporters of interfering in the investigation by interviewing witnesses and circulating erroneous descriptions of vehicles and suspects.

Yet the police assertion -- that this led the public to look for the wrong vehicle and wrong people -- doesn't make much sense because police officials were not giving other, accurate information.

And, according to the Washington Post, the accurate description of the suspect's vehicle came from news reporting, not a police announcement.

This criticism should not detract from what appears to be an excellent investigation by the sniper task force. However, no one knows whether more people would have been murdered without forceful news reporting and Lantz's sharp eyes and timely call.

As Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose noted proudly when announcing the arrests, people coped in the face of terror. Children went to school, people worked and went on with their lives.

But law enforcement and the rest of us should take a sharp lesson from fearsome episodes like this one.

The more information that people have, the more able they are to make decisions and reconcile their apprehensions with the actual level of risk. It seems incomprehensible that law enforcement brass knew that the sniper had made a specific threat against children but withheld the information for days. It is even more bewildering that a major news agency apparently went along.

On the other hand, some individuals have wrongly criticized Chief Moose for communicating so cryptically and politely with the sniper. Moose was using correct police procedure in trying to negotiate with the killer. His goal, quite properly, was to stop the killings.

It may offend people, but sometimes keeping up a dialogue with terrorists, kidnappers and murderers can buy time and save lives. But clarity and straightforwardness also serve the public good.

A reporter directly asked the police chief after the arrests whether people in the area no longer needed to fear this particular killer. The chief hedged. It took a politician, the county executive, to assure area residents that they no longer had to fear these attacks.

If the police chief believed that there was still danger, that others involved in these gruesome crimes were still at large, he had a duty to warn the public. If he believed the people under arrest were indeed the ones responsible, there was no reason not to say so in plain English.

Hard questions still hang over the investigation: When and why were calls from the sniper ignored? Should the killings and terror have ended sooner? We will probably have to wait until reporters are able to supply the answers.

Police do have to keep some information confidential so that suspects don't destroy evidence or evade capture and to detect the inevitable false confessions that are made in well-publicized cases.

Yet the basic lesson remains: The public has a right to know. The old police mythology of withholding information is more likely to impede than aid in solving crimes. An informed, law-abiding citizenry is policing's most valuable asset.

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Joseph D. McNamara, the retired chief of police of San Jose, is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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