Police and media must be partners, not opponents

By CNJ staff

Clovis experienced another homicide last week, but much of the city did not learn of this killing until 36 hours after it happened. That’s because Police Chief Bill Carey waited until most of Clovis was asleep before releasing any information.

Our police chief and his department need to do better than that.

Officials said the body of Essie Thomas was found at 5:53 p.m. on Dec. 28, but they did not notify the public via a press release to the media until 1:40 a.m. on Dec. 29. So area TV and radio stations and this newspaper could not report that vital news as quickly as possible, either that night on the air or in the next morning’s paper, or on our Web pages. Broadcast reports finally started to filter out about 12 hours after the discovery.

Carey said he has more important things to do than call the media when a homicide takes place. We wholeheartedly agree; investigating a murder is job one for police.
But not finding a moment until the middle of the night to tell the public via a media release?

Chief Carey doesn’t understand or, worse, ignores, the implication of indifference his words carry of a growing public concern about the relatively high number of murders in the city and county — we’ve been shocked by an average of almost one a month for more than a year now.

Carey’s words also ignore a top cop’s parallel duty: Don’t surprise the bosses — in this case the public. We foot the bill for public safety. Tell us in a timely manner when a neighbor’s life has been lost to tragic accident or a foul deed. Using the media, in a good sense, tells the most people possible in a short period of time.

This attitude that police can’t solve crimes and keep the public informed properly is disturbing in another way: A good street cop, and we have many, knows an informed public can be an officer’s greatest asset in crime solving. On this topic, though, Chief Carey and this newspaper had a recent spirited conversation, to wit:

When we suggested the public has a right to know if a killer might be roaming the streets, Carey angrily stated there were no killers roaming in connection with the Essie Thomas case, that a suspect was arrested immediately after her body was discovered.

Yet wasn’t it four days later that a second suspect was charged in Thomas’ slaying?

So we’re back to our original point: The public has a right to be told by its public safety servants of a homicide right after it takes place, even if the police chief is confident the case has been solved.

Our newspaper and other media must accept some blame for the delay in reporting on the homicide, just as we did when the Curry County jail was slow in telling us about a prisoner’s death 2 1/2 years ago. We all need to be more aggressive in newsgathering efforts. We need to file more public records requests and spend more time knocking on public officials’ doors, at work and at home after hours on matters of public interest.

But our job would be easier if police would let us know when a major crime occurs.

Carey repeatedly has stated he’s concerned about appearing to favor one media outlet over another, so he releases all information to all media at the same time. And that’s why it sometimes takes eight hours to inform the public about a homicide.

What a smokescreen. The chief knows he can call all the media he needs on his cell phone from a secured crime scene within a few minutes.

We don’t understand why our police chief concerns himself with media competition anyway. Once a homicide scene is secure and police have done all they can to ensure the safety of those in the vicinity, somebody needs to inform the public at large. A knock on every citizen’s door might be the best way to provide this service; announcing it via local media is a more realistic approach.

We’ve had issues with Carey in the past, though we’ve not shared them in this public forum. Most of our complaints have centered on his inability to inform the public about major crime in a timely manner.

We’ve had formal and informal meetings to address our concerns, but the problem remains.

This week, Chief Carey said he is working on a way to address media relations on this question. We were glad to hear it, but this isn’t about media relations — it’s about public relations.

He must let the public know sooner what happened, and what’s being done by his department — before there’s another alleged killer on the loose that the public doesn’t know about.