Brunswick Police Cautious About Sharing Info
After the murder of a Pensacola couple known for adopting disabled children, the local sheriff divulged details of the slaying in dozens of interviews and daily news conferences.
Five days after a mass murder in a Brunswick, Ga., mobile-home park, information is dribbling out from a police chief who declines to discuss the case.
Brunswick Police Chief Matt Doering hasn't held a news conference since Monday, when he conceded that the public may be frustrated with the lack of information about the deaths of eight people. "I understand your frustration, believe me," Doering said then. "We have to be very careful not to release those details that could jeopardize our investigation."
Law enforcement experts say police balance what the public needs to know against the dangers of tipping off a suspect and damaging the investigation and prosecution.
"Need to know is the standard - if there's information that will allow the public to take steps to protect themselves in an unsolved homicide with a suspect on the loose," says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.
Police withhold information strategically to weed out false confessions or determine whether a suspect knows something about a crime that isn't public, Fox says. Police avoid releasing vague information, such as an incomplete suspect description, because it generates dead-end tips, he says.
Incorrect information made public early in an investigation can throw a case off course, Fox says. When Washington, D.C.-area police were chasing a sniper in 2002, they said they were looking for a white van, he notes. Later, the police learned the suspects drove a blue sedan.
Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan, whose department has arrested eight people in connection with the murders of Byrd and Melanie Billings in Pensacola, says police weigh potential harm to a case against public confidence when making disclosures.
"You have to reach out to the community to reassure them that your law enforcement agency is there, that you've taken charge of the scene and you're going to bring it to a successful resolution," Morgan says.
Releasing a photo of a suspect paid off in the Billings case, Morgan says. Within an hour, a tipster called police with the suspect's location. Still, he says, he withheld information to use when questioning suspects.
Revealing too much "lays a path of clues for the suspect about how the investigation is proceeding," says Jon Shane, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a retired Newark, N.J., police captain. "The suspect can read the clues and change his strategy."