Media, police often work together

Published 2:56 am Wednesday, October 30, 2002

By By BILL CRIST – Publisher
At first, no one was quite sure what to make of it. A gunman was shooting, and often killing, seemingly random victims in the vicinity of our nation's capital.
As we tried to make sense of the situation, we looked for patterns and connections that would give us some kind of an idea about what was going on. The cable news channels packed prime time lineups with profilers, criminologists, retired investigators and other so-called experts. Each seemed full of suggestions about the shooter's, or shooters', background and motives, and as time passed, the picture of a very complex, mastermind criminal evolved.
It was possible, the experts said, that police would find connections to terrorist organizations. The shooter, they said, carefully thought out each scenario, developing elaborate plans of escape and likely was enjoying the cat-and-mouse game he was playing with law enforcement officials. Then the clues starting coming in.
The task force investigating the shooting spree gave the media bits and pieces about a letter found in the woods after one of the last shootings. There were cryptic messages going back and forth between officials and the shooter over the airwaves. Over the weekend, the pundits credited the shooter with even greater intelligence for his elusiveness and scheming.
On Wednesday, much of that changed, though. To many people's chagrin, news helicopters hovered over a home in Tacoma, Wash. Police were using metal detectors to search for bullet fragments and shell casings. They removed a tree trunk that we were told might have been used for target practice by the suspect. While not confirmed by officials at the time, we were told that the suspected sniper had likely once lived in the house. Many people were infuriated by the coverage, fearing that the suspects would be tipped off and able to elude capture again. As they sat glued to the coverage, they were fully prepared to blame the media for interfering with the investigations and disrupting any progress the police had made.
What most people don't realize, though, is that in situations like this one, law enforcement and the media often work hand in hand. While most of us have never been involved in covering a situation like the one that unfolded in Maryland and Virginia over the past couple of weeks, experience with local officials in a town as small as Brewton can give you an idea of how that relationship works.
In the history of journalism, the investigative reporter is a relatively new concept. While over time reporters have made great impacts on society through undercover research and the resulting articles, it was not until the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s and events like Watergate, that the general public really got a taste of it. But even still, the media rely heavily on official spokespeople as they gather information.
That was the case with the sniper situation, even on that final day. It's almost a certainty that investigators knew exactly who they were going to arrest and likely had a pretty good idea of where they were, even as news crews were filming them gathering evidence. More than doing anything to endanger the search, the media was doing its job, using information that was provided by officials leading the effort.
As more information is being made available, it appears that the two suspects in custody are less brilliant criminal minds than misguided thugs. Some of the clues they left behind, as well as previous crimes, indicate that the pair was guided as much by greed as by the "thrill" of their actions.
As is the case with many serial killers, we may never know exactly what drove the two men to do what they did. Their crimes are horrific and they deserved the harshest punishment available to prosecutors. And while it was the tireless work of law enforcement officials across this country that made their arrest possible, the media did play a supporting role in this story. In the end, it was the partnership between the two that ended the terror that gripped residents of two states.
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