Thursday, March 30, 2006

The chief, the lawyers and the media: "Who benefits?"

By Mark Dorroh

Saturday, a Richmond journalist decided to employ his column for the purpose of ridiculing a Hopewell City public safety officer. Specifically, in a popular newspaper column, Hopewell Bureau of Police Chief Rex Marks was taken to task for "hibernating rather than talking about the investigation of his department."

The columnist prolonged the questionable metaphor (I seriously doubt the chief has been kipping for more than eight hours a day since late January) beyond the bounds of both taste and reason by adding that during a news conference about the ongoing Bureau of Police investigation, Chief Marks "seemed to be one very annoyed bear."

I was not terribly surprised to read, in a Richmond publication, the inference that our chief is improperly holding back from the public the particulars of a tangled, complex and incomplete investigation. Actually, I'd have been amazed if someone in The Big Town hadn't taken at least one gratuitous cheap shot at our chief and, by logical extension, our city.

That's because during my 15 years of reporting in the greater Richmond/Tri-Cities market, Richmond's record of sensationalistic coverage in our town is so well-documented.

The last truly dangerous scandal we had here was the Kepone/Life Sciences mess in the mid-1970s, but the natural desire of reporters and assignment editors (many of whom will subtly shade the truth if they think it might boost circulation or ratings) to make hay while the sun shines on any trivial Hopewell story has triumphed time and again.

How well I recall the discovery, in the early 1990s, of a few hundred buckets and barrels of glop, most of it rainwater-diluted industrial abrasives, inside the former Firestone plant. Those "hazardous materials" were far less dangerous and easier to dispose of than the mini-mountain of asbestos piled inside the structure or the PCBs soaking the soil around leaking transformers, both of which were already known. Nonetheless, Richmond media had a field day, engaging in over-the-top coverage which included live satellite truck remote broadcasts of actual correspondents standing in front of an actual abandoned factory where actual containers of essentially harmless glop had been detected.

And you don't want to get me started on Richmond's nuclear-grade bloviation and mindless hand-wringing surrounding the Hopewell crypto-sporidium scare or the idiot child who set fire to another kid.

The bottom line is, while knee-jerk mongering of fear and pathos are proven methods of peddling journalistic product, the main reason I avoid such practices is that the emotions aroused thereby too often obscure the facts.

Back to Saturday's column: Ray McAllister, a normally perceptive scribbler of news and opinion, seems to believe the particulars of an incomplete probe into allegations of official misconduct should be bruited about all over creation. He is oblivious to the fact that there are several really good reasons for Chief Marks to keep his mouth shut.

1. Ongoing investigations are only fair and effective, especially if they wind up with charges being filed, if conducted in the utmost secrecy. 2. Exposing details of an unfolding inquiry to the glare of publicity invites the public to make up its collective mind on the guilt or innocence of any eventual suspects long before all the facts are in. The potential for a defense motion for change of trial venue - with all its attendant public expense - is so obvious one wonders how any responsible journalist could ignore its importance.

3. When he took office, Chief Marks swore an oath of office to uphold the law to the best of his ability, and that includes being ever-mindful of bedrock principles such as the right to presumed innocence and the right of the accused to confront his accuser in the proper forum.

4. The "proper forum" is and always has been a court of law, not the front page.

But the temptation to run with a story based on what may well turn out to be spurious allegations against honest officers made by repeat felons - two-legged predators with nothing to lose and much to gain by such tale-telling - was too juicy for McAllister, his Richmond cronies and (sadly) elements of our own Tri-Cities press corps to resist. Lost in all the excitement was a salient fact: The most persistent critics of the chief's stonewalling policies are defense attorneys whose professional obligation it is to do anything legal which might get their clients off the hook.

Finally, on the issue of the Hopewell Bureau of Police's evidence room, it should be noted (and has been in this newspaper) that the absence of missing items could very well be less a matter of criminal activity than of poor records-keeping. Chief Marks has said it and our commonwealth's attorney has said it, but outside these pages, few if any have acknowledged the fact that it is the nature of the human animal to slop around on paperwork.

Compared to mistakes attributable to our perennial distaste for scrupulous scrivening, the practice of genuine skullduggery is far less common. In the case of police employees who know sooner or later the absence of physical evidence was bound to be noticed, it's also far less likely.

Oddly, while reporters seem eager to speculate on every other aspect of the situation, especially those suggesting corruption, they've given short shrift to this one very real possibility. I hope I may be forgiven for my suspicion that it's because a story about missing files isn't as sexy as one in which drugs and money are ripped off by crooked cops.

So remember children, take everything you see, hear or read with a massive grain of salt. My unsolicited advice would be to constantly monitor everyone's motives, including my own, via use of the classic legal interrogatory: "Who benefits?"

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