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A Times Editorial

When danger lurks, public needs to know

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002

If a sniper with a semiautomatic rifle had gunned down someone in your neighborhood, you would want to know about it as soon as possible. You might want to take some reasonable steps to increase your family's safety. Parents probably would keep their children inside. Walkers or bicyclists might choose a different route.

But Brooksville police Chief Ed Tincher apparently doesn't believe residents should have that sort of information in a timely manner. He proved it last weekend when two Pasco County men ambushed a Brooksville resident during a middle-of-the-night drug deal.

The fatal shooting occurred very early Saturday morning, but Tincher and his staff did not inform the press, which is most people's only link to police news, until Monday. That meant most folks, except for those in the immediate vicinity of Russell Street Park, where the shooting took place, did not learn details about the crime until Tuesday morning.

In the meantime, rumors swirled around town that the slaying was racially motivated and that the victim, an African-American, had been tied up and his throat slit by the killers. Both suspects are white. By Sunday, Tincher was compelled to enlist the help of Sheriff Richard Nugent to organize a meeting with members of the black community to quell the growing rumors that this was a hate crime.

That meeting should have taken place a day earlier. But it might not have even been necessary if Tincher had been more timely and forthcoming about what had happened.

The reasons Tincher has given for delaying release of the news do not justify keeping it from people who not only needed it, but deserved it.

Tincher's conduct shows indifference to the public's right to know and reinforces a long-standing belief that his department is too closed-mouthed with the press, which city residents routinely rely on for information.

Tincher maintains that if he had informed reporters the day after the shooting, they would have interfered with his investigation, preventing him from identifying and apprehending suspects. He also claims he and his investigators were too busy managing the crime scene and interviewing family members.

While it is commendable that arrests were made (one Saturday and one Sunday night), the process probably could have been expedited if Tincher had requested more help -- sooner -- from the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, which is better equipped and more experienced in handling homicide investigations.

Once the family of the shooting victim was aware of the circumstances, and one arrest had been made on Saturday, Tincher should have made an effort to inform the public -- through the press -- of at least the basic facts of the case. Most law enforcement agencies in the Tampa Bay region do just that, without sacrificing their investigation or leaving the public in the dark.

Tincher said Friday he has no regrets about how he handled this incident, and he stands by his decision.

But the question he should ask himself, and one City Manager Richard Anderson and the City Council members might pose as well, is this:

If it had happened in their neighborhood, would they be content to wait three days for details?

If they answer truthfully "no," then they should instruct Chief Tincher to review his actions in this instance and use better judgment next time.

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