Where we live: Secretive police
By Ron Gower
Back when I was a cub reporter, one of my daily jobs was to call each local police department on the telephone and ask if there was anything to report.
Most police chiefs and officers seemed receptive to the calls, either stating that “it’s been a quiet night” or they would list any burglaries, traffic accidents, stolen property, vandalism, fire alarms and sometimes even good news such as an officer finding a lost Alzheimer’s patient.
Gradually police departments quit sharing information over the phone, opting instead to fax or email information.
Now, many police departments have gone completely silent on the media. That means they also have stopped reporting to the public; the people who pay taxes, who for the most part want to rally to their aid when they want help and who often help them to solve crimes.
Burglaries and home break-ins are occurring more than people realize in various local towns, but police don’t let the public know. If a series of crimes happen in your neighborhood, isn’t it a good idea to be told? The public not only will remain more vigilant, but might give the police the information they need to solve the crimes, especially with so many people using home security cameras.
How did such a fracture between the media and the police occur?
One thing I observed in some communities was the inability for chiefs to delegate authority. Going back to when daily police calls were common, there were a few chiefs who refused to let officers release any information without their approval. So, if a chief of police went on vacation, no police reports to the media happened until the chief returned. If anything, it was a sign of insecurity, not power control.
Another problem that occurred was distrust for the media. I recall one incident where a police cruiser crashed and the media reported it. The police chief in that particular department didn’t want it reported. Thus began a severing of relations in that particular town.
Attending various borough council meetings, it appears people are often — yes, often is the correct word — unhappy with their police.
This is because residents don’t think the police are working hard enough. People don’t hear about them responding to burglaries and other crime anymore. They don’t see what arrests are occurring. They don’t know about all the good things officers do.
Some people think the police do nothing more than sit in their offices all day, and that’s simply not true. The image of the police could be improved if they would better communicate with the citizenry through the media.
There’s one local department which always had an open-door policy to the media for years. Then a different chief of police took command; a chief who is more secretive than a parent at Christmas. He doesn’t turn in any press releases to the media and he never volunteers information. He doesn’t realize how important it is for the police to have trust and respect from the public, and this isn’t happening when the residents are kept in the dark on important matters.
It’s easier than ever for police to communicate with the news media and the public.
Police would find a better response, including trust and acceptance, from the public if they were more open and more communicative.
I would love for the day to come when police and the media work together. There are a few police departments that know the value of communication. But too many of them don’t.