Crime Scenes: Baltimore County Police Fail to Alert Public to Breaking Crime

… Alerts are dated; one murder withheld from public …

By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

3:45 PM EDT, March 26, 2011

Baltimore County police made back-to-back announcements on Friday: detectives made arrests in a killing in Essex and in a fatal shooting of a man whose body was found along a highway on-ramp in Gaithersburg.

It’s news you’d expect to hear from your police department.

But these announcements were “news” only because you might have been hearing about the shootings for the very first time.

The shooting in Essex occurred Jan. 8, and police arrested a suspect Feb. 25. The shooting of the man found in Gaithersburg occurred on York Road Feb. 5, 2009, and police charged a suspect on Feb. 4 of this year.

Authorities put Friday’s announcements in emails to the media and on the department’s new “crime alerts” page on iWatch, a website launched in February and touted as a new gateway for keeping the public informed.

Though iWatch purports to deliver the “most immediate information available,” it doesn’t include the county’s most recent crimes. In playing catch-up with crimes unreported to the public, police hadn’t as of Friday afternoon included Tuesday’s killing of a 17-year-old shot during a fight on a street in Lansdowne.

Two schools went into “alert status” and locked down their students, but the cops didn’t see fit to include the shooting on its “crime alerts” page. If we’re going by the department’s definition of the news, the cops might list it sometime next month, or the month after that.

Television and newspapers covered most of these killings in the hours and days after they occurred, and in some cases news releases were sent out to reporters (but not posted to county residents on iWatch). One death came to light only after a reporter questioned why a police spokesman listed just three killings in the county as of late February when the homicide unit told us there had been four.

Why tell the public about these cases now? What made Friday the perfect day to release weeks- and months-old news? And how does that help the public? That some incidents had been disclosed to the media earlier than Friday is not an argument; police shouldn’t omit crime news from their own list that people rely on for official information.

People deserve to know when their neighbors are shot, stabbed, beaten and robbed. They deserve to know when houses in their community are burglarized. Not a month later. Not a week later. Not even days later. It’s disingenuous to ask the public to join in the crime fight but not tell the public about crime when it occurs.

Lt. Robert McCullough, the Baltimore County Police Department’s chief spokesman, told The Sun’s Nick Madigan that the homicide unit had “ongoing investigations and only recently provided us with [information] and permission to release it.”

He added in an email to me: “We provide complete and accurate content to all media throughout the region each day.”

Police can’t withhold public information until detectives give “permission to share it.” Once it’s public, it’s public, and we don’t charge people in secret in this country.

Crime news is news when it happens, not when the county police feel like talking.

A police spokesman told us at the paper earlier this year that due to staffing limitations, information about an incident couldn’t be updated until after a three-day holiday weekend, prompting a newsroom joke: “Baltimore County — weekend news on Tuesday.”

Accurate but not timely.

Most crime listed on the Police Department’s iWatch website is simply old news repackaged under the guise of being new because the cops need your help to solve it. The agency’s official portal to the public deceives residents into thinking that all significant crime is being disclosed.

Not even close.

People who turned to iWatch last week were treated not to a statement or updates on the most recent killing in Lansdowne, but to a plea for help in locating a gunman wanted for robbing, hitting and shooting at a man outside a Bally’s health club in White Marsh.

No doubt the holdup is news, and scary for club members, who might want to take extra precautions. They might even have seen something, and want to call or email a tip to a 24-hour hotline. But “news” of the holdup wasn’t really news at all: It occurred more than a month ago, on Feb. 15.

People who went to iWatch on Feb. 15 were not informed of the robbery in White Marsh, but instead learned for the first time about a stabbing that occurred had three days earlier, a fatal hit-and-run that happened two days prior, and a man who had gone missing in October.

On Friday, police asked for help identifying four people who severely beat a man after a traffic stop on Baltimore National Pike. The beating occurred on Feb. 7. On March 14, police asked for help solving a carjacking that occurred Feb. 16. They wanted help on March 11 in finding a gunman who robbed a gas station on Feb. 18. On March 8, they wanted help finding a mother who abducted her two children on March 1.

How about first telling the public a crime has occurred, and then asking them for help?

If iWatch is being billed as a way to keep people informed, it’s not too much to expect that the online crime log be a complete listing of the major crimes that occur.

Police agencies across the country are grappling with how to best use the Internet to keep the public informed. Many use their websites to simply post news releases, statistics and general information about the department, all very helpful and welcome.

Baltimore police take an extra step, using Twitter, Facebook and email to send alerts about crime almost as it happens. This tweet went out one day last week at 9:32 p.m.: “SHOOTING: 900 Blk N. Broadway (Eastern District), 9:10pm, adult male shot in the back. District detectives investigating.”

Some Baltimore County cops understand what the public wants. Sgt. Stephen Fink emails a “weekly significant events report” to residents in the Towson area.

It’s a brief compilation of burglaries, robberies and arrests, such as this one from Goucher Boulevard on March 15: “The victim was walking home when the suspect jumped out of the bushes and implied having a handgun. The suspect told the victim to empty his pockets and to give him his property. The suspect took the property and fled.”

That might not be a significant enough crime to post on iWatch (though I’d argue for publishing this report for each precinct and letting residents sort news by neighborhood). But it seems odd to inform some residents about a street robbery but not inform all residents about a homicide.

County police describe the iWatch website as “a neighborhood awareness program created to educate and encourage citizens to vigilantly watch around them and report suspicious behaviors that may have connections to crime, as well as local, state, or national security threats.”

The “crime alerts” section, according to police, provides “information about wanted criminals, missing persons, criminal arrests, and other significant cases. In many of these cases the public’s help is requested to help identify or locate a suspect. You can make a difference by alerting police to information you may have about crime trends and wanted criminals.”

We all want to be safe from terrorists. But we also want to be safe from the gunman lurking in the bushes down the street from our homes. We should know when someone is carjacked. And when the gas station on the corner is held up. And when a gunman attacks a patron of a health club.

County police promote their new site: “iWatch, iReport, iKeep Us Safe.”

They can’t expect us to watch and to report, and to keep us safe, if they don’t tell us what’s going on.

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

Comments are closed.