Friday, January 28, 2011
We don't want police as arbiters of public information
Without question, the murder-suicide in Cadboro Bay last week was a “family tragedy,” in the words of Saanich police.
But it was also a crime, and a very serious one at that. And yet the police department has refused to release the usual details that are made public after a murder. In the case of Erich and Kathy Mueller, police are even refusing to say who was victim and who was murderer.
I feel for the Mueller family. But then again, I feel for all the families who have to endure a crime, not to mention the media coverage that follows. It must be quite a terrible experience when it’s your child, your parents, your life, being blasted all over that day’s news, and at a time of immense grief.
Unfortunately, that’s how it is in a free country. Someone caught committing a crime, no matter how small, could end up in the news if the media take an interest. If you kill someone, your crime is absolutely going to get coverage.
That’s exactly how it should be in my mind. Police departments are overstepping their bounds when they make arbitrary decisions over how much information to release to the media.
It’s rare for police to withhold basic details, mind you, and from what I can tell happens only when the crime has been committed by an older person from a good background. But that fact just underlines that police are making these kinds of decisions for all the wrong reasons.
If the Mueller murder-suicide had happened in a downtown hotel known for its impoverished, addicted clientele, would police still be withholding the most basic details of the crime - like who killed who? Or if the couple had been, say, Somali immigrants two years in the country? Or a young aboriginal couple?
Of course, it could be that in all of those situations, police would have made exactly the same decisions around what information to release. Maybe factors like economic status, age, family likeability and race don’t play a role in such decisions, and never mind how it looks from the outside.
But at a minimum, police should tell us why they won’t release more details in the Mueller case. Nobody wants to make life any more miserable for the family, but the principle underlying this issue is too important to ignore.
We all recognize police aren’t able to make certain details public immediately after a crime - in the interest of solving it, notifying next-of-kin and securing public safety.
But that’s not this is about. This is about special status conferred to some families based on the personal feelings of police.
Do we really want police deciding on our behalf which crimes we’ll be told about? Which details we’ll learn? Do we want to leave it to police to pick and choose which families will be shielded from adverse publicity - and conversely, which ones won’t be?
This latest tragedy isn’t an isolated case. I remember a heated exchange over the Times Colonist boardroom table with two Victoria police officers. It was 1994 and I was city editor, and police were very, very angry with us for publishing the names of a local dentist and his wife found dead in their Rockland Avenue home.
The dentist had killed his wife with a hammer and then hanged himself. But police were categorizing it as a “family tragedy” rather than a crime, and had refused to release the couple’s names. They were furious that the paper had gone ahead and reported who they were anyway.
More commonly, police categorize elderly drivers from good backgrounds as “different” for media purposes in cases where the driver ends up killing or injuring people. Their names are virtually never released to the public.
Why? Are we saying that it’s less of a crime to injure someone when you’re old and demented than it is when you’re young and stupid?
I roll my eyes with the best of them at the excesses of the media. But we should all be grateful that somebody’s out there pushing on the public’s behalf. Knowing the details can be painful, but it’s a heck of a lot better than leaving it to police and government to decide what the public has a right to know.
Equal treatment at the hands of the law is a well-entrenched social more in Canada, and a constitutional right. Surely that includes equality and transparency around how police report out on crimes.