Editorial: Police must be public informants

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The Alexandria Police Department responded with serious force to a call of a gunshot fired in broad daylight in Old Town last week. Roads were closed and a special operations unit guarded the scene as heavily armed officers infiltrated the home where an anonymous tipster had steered police.

Officers found nothing inside, packed up and went on with the day. Neighbors were left confused and frightened.

“I would like to add to the story [that] as a homeowner near the court … we were not told anything,” one reader commented on the Times’ website. “When we asked police they said there was a dangerous situation … nothing about staying in our house and possible gunshot.”

At press time about a week after the incident, there is still no word from police on whether a shot was fired. The APD performed its first task bravely but failed to communicate effectively with the public during or after the incident.

“There is no further investigation,” an APD spokesman wrote in a news release. That’s not the question. The question is whether or not a shot was fired.

Fortunately no one was physically injured in the standoff that wasn’t actually a standoff. But APD’s reputation in the community continues to suffer when it comes to communication skills. They clamped down an entire neighborhood, wielded heavy weaponry and decided not to explain to residents what happened. If residents were never threatened, tell them. Otherwise, perception will trump reality.

This is not the first time a communication breakdown has hampered relations between the police, the media and therefore Alexandria residents. Last year, the Times reported on Shawn Carlan, a fugitive wanted by police for severely beating a local woman after she refused his sexual advances. The crime occurred September 11, yet the APD did not make the information public until a month later — only after the Times inquired about it and after the suspect had a month to flee town. An alleged attempted rapist was on the loose, yet APD chose against distributing his picture to the very residents paying their salaries.

The public deserves a better relationship with its police, and police must deliver. The APD’s communication breakdown borders on arrogance. Virginia already has some of the toughest laws in the country when it comes to revealing public information like police reports. The residents of Alexandria don’t need the people sworn to protect them putting up further barricades to their peace of mind.