Tuesday, July 15, 2014

EDITORIAL >> Public must be informed

Editor’s note: This editorial from Dec. 21, 2013, won the Arkansas Press Association’s newspaper contest for editorial writing on Saturday. The Jacksonville Police Department is meeting today to reconsider its policy of not notifying the public about armed robberies when no one is hurt or only a small amount of money is stolen. The suspect in the case will go on trial next month.

The Jacksonville Police Department kept residents in the dark about a string of armed robberies at ATM machines — which ended in the shooting death of a 23-year-old man — under the premise that they were investigating those cases. Meanwhile, people continued to be victimized while using cash machines at night.

Perhaps if police would have thought to alert the public to be more vigilant at ATMs after dark, Jacksonville might not be closing out 2013 with a fourth murder.

“If you see something, say something” clearly did not apply to Jacksonville police officers when it came to notifying the public.

The police reports were hidden from the media, so the public didn’t know there was a dangerous serial ATM robber on the loose in their community. It took more than three weeks before the police made an arrest, although last weekend’s fatal shooting clearly put pressure on the police department to make an arrest.

Law-enforcement officials often withhold crime reports from the public — including this newspaper — to ensure they don’t disclose something that could later compromise their chances of getting a conviction in court. But, oftentimes when reports are concealed, it appears the motivation is to hide from view crimes that will reflect poorly on police departments and the community.

When the FBI releases its annual crime statistics, rape cases are almost always reported, even though they were not previously released by local police departments. That smacks of a public-relations effort rather than solid police work.

Police are not the owners of public information; they are merely temporary custodians of it.

In defense of keeping the robberies quiet, Capt. Kenny Boyd, spokesman for the Jacksonville Police Department, said, “We don’t want to give all of our clues out so quickly.”

That implies officers were following up on clues that would lead to an arrest. But incident reports should be released immediately, without tipping off a criminal to what the police know about him. In this case, investigators were not aggressive enough in tracking down a suspect who carried out his crimes on a bicycle while armed with a semi-automatic pistol.

Lerome Deshawn Kelley, 19, a homeless youth, admitted to officers that he shot Marcus Israel on Dec. 13 as he was withdrawing $20 from the ATM at First Arkansas Bank on Main Street. Israel fled from his alleged killer instead of handing over the money. Kelley has pleaded not guilty, but the police department said he admitted to robbing customers at Bank of America on Nov. 28 and Nov. 30. He also confessed to holding up an employee at Sonic on the day of the murder.

Residents who generously financed a new $6 million state-of-the-art police department on Marshall Road deserve to be informed when they are at risk of being victimized. Otherwise, they are easy prey for criminals.

We don’t expect police officers to get it right all the time, but public safety should always come first. In this tragic series of ATM robberies, the public’s need to know was sadly ignored.