It’s important to admit when we’re wrong.
Our society would certainly be better off if we’d all display a bit more humility and acknowledge the obvious: We’re all fallible. In journalism, we adhere to a strict code of ethics that requires us to correct proven factual mistakes.
There was clearly a mistake made in the characterization of an assault of a woman in the 600 block of Wilkes Street on September 1. See our page one story, “Delayed crime reporting draws ire,” for more information. But no one is fessing up in this instance. Consider:
1) Initial calls on the police scanner, one for police help and the second for an ambulance, refer to an assault and a facial injury stemming from the assault. Just three minutes later, another officer or dispatcher said to “change the classification to robbery please.”
2) Mayor Justin Wilson responded to a resident’s request for information on the incident by saying “I did confirm that there was no release issued because this was initially reported to Police as a robbery with no injuries” in an emailed response.
3) APD spokesman Marcel Bassett insisted in exchanges with the Times that “The initial report stated attempted robbery and abduction,” though he did not state when that report was filed, and that there had been no revision in the characterization of the incident.
Those three items are not consistent with each other, or with the fact that the city did issue an alert about this incident – two weeks after it occurred – following an outcry by Old Town residents on social media.
We think it’s important that police not underreport the seriousness of any crimes, for several reasons.
The first is simply protection of the public. Public notification is warranted, according to a list provided by Bassett, if a violent assault with significant injuries takes place, as does a sexual assault from a stranger – but an attempted robbery does not.
A real time notification, in this or other instances, could warn the public whether the perpetrator has been caught or is at large – and where they were last seen. People can take precautions, and potentially help police locate the suspect, if a police alert goes out.
The second is that criminal records are cumulative and the severity of a crime helps determine the sentence a criminal receives if caught and convicted. The sentence for a violent assault is going to be longer than one for attempted robbery.
If the same person later commits another, perhaps more serious, crime, the prior record will be taken into account for sentencing. It’s important to get this right, even after the fact.
When a mistake is made – in a factory, in a newsroom or in a police report – it’s more productive to examine what process went awry than it is to point fingers.
Given this truism, it’s important that APD review its training procedures in assessing crime scenes and writing police reports to make sure there’s not a facet of this training that might be causing underreporting of crime severity. We’re not saying that this is happening, just that it could be.
Mayor Justin Wilson’s comments in our story are absolutely right: New evidence does frequently come to light that revises our understanding of what took place at a crime scene.
But what’s more important is to do everything possible to get it right in real time so the public can be alerted or, as one source in our story stated, to call out a helicopter and possibly catch the perpetrator.
In this particular instance, it strains credulity to think that a man who had dragged a woman into an alley after dark was “only” robbing her.
If this incident truly didn’t meet APD’s threshold for alerting the public, then maybe the list of notifications needs revising.