Crime Scenes: How much info should cops divulge at an unfolding event?

Taneytown resident complains that lack of information endangered residents during recent standoff

December 14, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

A man armed with a shotgun fired at cops — hitting a sergeant in the center of his knit cap with "wadding," the plastic cap that contains pellets.

Officers retreated but heard the man racking his shotgun and firing off more blasts in the residential neighborhood. "Come get me!" he shouted, according to authorities, as he barricaded himself inside his house on Red Tulip Court in Taneytown.

Maryland State Police swarmed, called in a tactical response team, used a loudspeaker to talk to the 41-year-old suspect and approached the house in an armor-plated vehicle. Police also used what is called a "reverse 911" system to call 188 homes in the Carroll County town to warn occupants about the incident last Thursday night.

"The local police department and the Maryland State Police request you stay in your homes during an emergency situation currently under way in your area," the message said. "Stay inside and make sure doors are locked during the overnight hours."

The first shots were fired about 7:30 p.m.

The first call to neighbors went out about 11 p.m.

Somehow residents on Divern Street, which is roughly a block to the east of Red Tulip Court but separated by yards and a line of trees, were left out of the calls.

And no follow-up calls were made to tell people that the suspect had surrendered peacefully at 1 a.m.

Shelley Sarsfield lives in Gettysburg but has a daughter who lives on Divern Street. "She called me about 8:30," the mother said. "She's got two sick children and is pregnant with a third. There was a helicopter shaking the whole house. She could hear the gunshots. The kids were crying. Cops were everywhere."

Sarsfield said she called the state police barracks in Westminster and had to push through what she called evasive answers until someone finally told her a man with a gun was in a nearby house. "Why wasn't anyone notified long before?" Sarsfield said. "Even the ones who were notified, it was four hours later. What's the point of a 911 thing if you don't alert people when the shots are being fired?"

How and what to tell the public during the opening moments of a frantic crisis can be a difficult decision.

Maryland State Police Lt. Andrew G. Winner, commander of the Westminster barracks, said he wants to divulge enough details to keep bystanders safe but doesn't want to endanger police or anyone else. For example, he said he wouldn't put out the exact address of the suspect in case a neighbor happens to be a close friend or relative who might tip the gunman off to covert police locations.

The lieutenant also stressed that the situation was contained, with the gunman inside and in police sights at all times. The only shots fired were at the onset of the confrontation, before any alert could go out. The suspect, Winner said, was not roaming the neighborhood shooting.

Had that occurred, "we would've notified everybody and his brother," the commander said.

Trouble is, residents had no way of knowing that at the time.

Winner acknowledged that the calls to residents weren't handled the best way possible. He said he'll make sure that in the future, calls go out when incidents have concluded. And of the 31/2-hour gap between the first shots fired and the first warning, he said, "It won't happen again."

Part of the problem is not just who gets called and when — though three hours is hardly timely — but what the messages say. Police are traditionally circumspect with information, but sometimes too little information breeds too much speculation, and fear.

The call residents got spoke cryptically of an "emergency situation currently under way in your area" and warned them to stay inside and lock their doors overnight. That of course drew a bunch of calls to the barracks, where the trooper answering the phone is also responsible for dispatching police at the scene.

Winner said that in retrospect, the "reverse 911" call could've noted that a gunman had barricaded himself inside a house.

Contrast the reverse 911 call Taneytown residents got last week with these Twitter alerts sent by city police last month:

• "1100 blk N Parrish St. Suspect has locked himself inside of a house after a possible domestic related incident. No reported hostages 2:00 PM Nov 6th." A separate alert on Nixle, a service city residents can subscribe to for free to receive information, added: "Please avoid this area as some streets may be temporarily closed."

•"2:30pm, UPDATE: 1100 blk N Parrish St. Suspect has been taken into custody. No injuries reported. Streets in the area will reopen shortly 2:42 PM Nov 6th"

City cops packed a lot of useful information in their posts, and reduced the fear factor by saying there were no hostages and the attack wasn't random.

And it was timely.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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