Police Irk Media, But Injure Selves

COMMENT

October 17, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

After taking a mere 30 hours last July to wrap up the investigation of Westminster's only double homicide in five years, the city's police chief, Samuel Leppo, had reason to be proud.

He was pleased not only that his department was quickly able to solve the July 27 murders of Cathryn Farrar and George "Billy" Wahl, but, more important, two of his men were in Florida preparing to retrieve two suspects who were in custody.

Instead of having a triumphant news conference at which he and his department could bask in the glory of a job well-done, though, Chief Leppo had to field several pointed questions about why he filed the charges against the two without notifying anyone in the media.

Because Chief Leppo filed the murder charges against Jason A. DeLong, Ms. Farrar's son, and his girlfriend, Sarah E. Citroni, at 8 p.m. at the county court house without telling anyone, newspapers, radio and television stations continued to report that the police were still searching for the suspects. Chief Leppo's unfortunate decision to file the charges as he did meant residents of Bishop's Garth, the site of the murder, spent a long night worrying for their safety unnecessarily.

Carroll's resident state troopers are just as neglectful about keeping the public informed. Last February, when the body of a Westminster fisherman, William C. Prodoehl, was discovered, state police said he died of "blunt trauma" to his head.

An autopsy a day later revealed he died of gunshot wounds.

Yet the state troopers never bothered to report this major change in the cause of Mr. Prodoehl's death. A reporter discovered the fact only because he happened to call the state medical examiner's office four days later later and inquired about it.

Sometimes it appears that Carroll's police agencies intensely dislike the news media and take pride in making the collection of information as difficult as possible.

At the Westminster State Police barracks, for instance, routine reports about crime -- available to news organizations in other Maryland jurisdictions -- are kept from reporters. Instead, officers at the barracks decide which reports to release for public consumption.

While the police may take delight in making life difficult for those of us who collect and report the news, they are actually hurting their own efforts to combat crime.

In the case of Mr. Prodoehl, state police investigators may have lost valuable leads because they did not fully report the circumstances of his death. People who had been in the area of the Monocacy River where his body was found and who might have heard gunshots probably paid the matter little thought after they heard the initial report that Mr. Prodoehl died from blows to the head. Leads on the crime dried up quickly, and the case remains unsolved.

To jog people's memories, state police investigators videotaped re-enactment of the crime last summer and broadcast it over a local cable television channel. Unfortunately, this effort came six months after the crime -- which may be too long for people to remember any unusual incidents that might be helpful in the murder investigation.

What is extraordinary about these anecdotes is that the police are making life unnecessarily tough for themselves. Some of their best information comes from the public. And unless they inform the news media, the public won't be of much help. Why else would a program such as "America's Most Wanted" be so successful in turning up fugitives?

The state police may not like the news media. We are always pestering them with questions, many of which they can't answer because they haven't completed their investigations. We call them at busy times. We second-guess them. Sometimes, we find out things they don't know.

Nevertheless, they have to deal with us. News organizations have a constitutional right to poke their noses into police matters.

Too often, police officials believe that because they often are involved in confidential investigations of criminal activities, all of their activities, by default, should be kept from public view.

That may explain why Carroll's resident troopers do such a poor job of informing the public about crimes in the county.

But there is another reason: Carroll's resident troopers don't have to answer to county officials. Carroll residents may pay their salaries, but they report to the state police headquarters in Pikesville.

Westminster police often forget to inform reporters about major developments. The city's taxpayers pay for their police, and are entitled to know what the police are doing on their behalf.

We give our police officers extraordinary powers. In exchange for the responsibility of safeguarding us and apprehending criminals, we, as a society, bestow upon them the right to openly carry weapons and use them when necessary. We give them the right to detain and incarcerate people. In return, the police should be as forthright and candid with us to ensure those extraordinary powers are used in the best interest of the citizenry.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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