SHOULD PUBLIC BE TOLD OF SERIAL
Police and Citizen Interests Often Collide
By Kevin Heldman
NEW YORK (APBNews.com) — Are lives further endangered when local police withhold information about a possible serial killer — or when they release it?
This is one of the most contentious aspects of the relationship between communities and their police agencies during a serial killer investigation, according to veterans on all sides of the issue.
The debate has led to a number of conflicts:
In Milwaukee, Wis., at least 12 women have been strangled in
what may be the work of one person, but the police department refuses comment on any aspect of the case.
In Portland, Ore., a criminal investigator still refuses talk to
the local newspaper because 16 years ago the editor refused to run a composite of a suspected killer for fear the paper would be perceived as an arm of law enforcement.
In Kansas City, Mo., after nine women were killed and dumped in
the Missouri River, the brother-in-law of one of the victims started a web site to chronicle what is known about the possible serial killer cluster. Complaining that not enough information is being provided by law enforcement, he posted the victims’ photos and opened an e-mail forum to the community.
Dr. Thomas Streed, a retired homicide detective from San Diego with extensive experience in investigating cold cases, points out problems on both sides, “The media is a cutthroat, competitive business so you get reporters, each of them trying to get an investigator to say something more sensational or provocative than what was said to the last reporter. What happens is that these detectives get very pissed off being the target of the competition between members of the media.”
On the law enforcement side Streed says he’s been involved in
investigations where police officials competed to put out the press release. “The brutal reality is that they don’t give a s**t
about the case being solved,” he said. “They’re more interested in
seeing themselves on television because that’s the fast track to recognition. It’s very, very helpful to your career and your prestige.”
The standard reason given by most law enforcement agencies as to why they refuse to release information is that they want to hold on to facts that only the killer would know. “If we have some guy come in and say he heard this guy talking in a bar that he shot some female six times in the head, and if I know that information wasn’t released in the media, that’s good information,” says Sgt. Dave Bernard, a Kansas City homicide detective.
Press as Enemy?
In some cases, however, law enforcement’s reluctance to provide
information seems less about preserving the integrity of an investigation than a reflex response — the press is the
enemy and law enforcement has an absolute proprietary right to
Mark Profit, who’s serving two consecutive life sentences for murder and attempted rape, is considered by Minneapolis police to be the person responsible for the murders of three other women. They’re so sure he did it that they feel it would be a waste of time and money to prepare a case against him and there is no active investigation being conducted.
However, in response to the question of why the police believe Profit committed these murders, Penny Parrish, Public Information Officer for the force, responds that the department never releases any information unless they’re pleading with the public for help.
“Because it would compromise the investigation.”
“It would ruin it.”
But there is no investigation.
And so on, until she terminated the conversation.
“Under most circumstances that little magical piece of information that the police want to hold back doesn’t exist,” Streed says. “You’ve got a decomposed body in a dump job, what is it that you’re going to hold back — the fact that the victim was laying on their right side? Guess what, most killers don’t even know how the body wound up when they pitched him out of a car…The fact is a lot of killers aren’t even certain how many times they fired the gun anyway, and they don’t know where those bullets went; they’re in panic state.”
Tremendous Amount of Pressure
Spokane County Sheriffs’ Department Captain Doug Silver, who’s leading a task force investigating a serial killer responsible for at least eight dead women, says that there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on a police force once a department goes public with the fact that they have a serial killer. He also says an agency can actually be hindered by the number of bad tips that come in when information is released. His agency has already received approximately 2,800 tips.
A police announcement that someone has been killed is enough of an alert to the public, says Dr. Robert Keppel, Chief Criminal Investigator for the Washington State Attorney General’s
Office, who’s been involved as a consultant or a reviewer in numerous serial murder investigations.
“As to the details of the murder itself, there’s nothing that’s going
to make the public any safer by releasing any of that stuff, but there’s a lot of political pressure that comes on the departments [and] they end up having to say something because the mayor wants something said.”
Information Used by Killer
As for jeopardizing an investigation, Keppel points out that in the
Atlanta child murders in the early 1980s, right after the press reported that the killer was leaving hair and fibers on the
bodies, all subsequent bodies were dumped in the river.
John Douglas, former head of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit and a consultant to APB, believes law enforcement should use the media, specifically to release information that can help to protect the public (how the killer operates, for example), as well as information that will put pressure on the subject.
Douglas explained how, when working a case in Seattle, he released
descriptions of what the suspect’s pre- and post-offense behavior was probably like. A family read the article, thought (correctly, as it turned out) that it fit the behavior of their son and contacted the authorities.
Douglas says it’s likely the murderer will be following the press. “It
drives me crazy when I hear a chief of police say, ‘We’ve exhausted all leads.’ That creates a big sigh of relief on the part of an offender — they never, never should say that.” The flip side of this is that law enforcement sometimes puts out disinformation intended to influence the unknown suspect — a tactic that, even if done infrequently, contributes to the media’s skepticism about police information.
Douglas does say he was involved in one case where disinformation was put out — the media were told that the police had a description of an individual and his vehicle. As they hoped, the subject “injected” himself into the investigation and he was caught.
“The more eyeballs that are out there looking for somebody, then the quicker they get caught, but the police play this dumbass game of, ‘We can’t release that information,'” Streed said. “Just once I’d like to have a six month trial period where police are obligated to release every blessed thing that they know about a case to the news media. I’ll bet the closure and successful prosecution rate would go up.”
On the other side of the debate Keppel quotes Ted Bundy’s own warning about the release of information, “The police say far too much to the press.”
Kevin Heldman is an APB News staff writer