A policE of silence and non-disclosure

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The Oceanian province of Airstrip One (formerly known as Lawton, OK) is a world of perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, and public mind control, dictated by a political system euphemistically named Ingsoc (Gud-ole-boi) under the control of a privileged Inner Party elite that persecutes all individualism and independent thinking as thoughtcrimes.

So I wasn’t even born in 1984, but I am living that year on a loop. I’ve been fielding complaints from people upset with the City of Lawton’s treatment of employees (namely police officers), all wanting me to “write a story,” but I don’t know what I would even write. There’s so much rumor, speculation, anger, vindictiveness, and ad hominem attacks I don’t know where to begin.

I’ve already worked on the police beat for five years, so I’ve written plenty of stories to anger most of my sources and I assure you, this is an all-too-familiar road.

When I wrote about Todd Palmer, an entire group of leakers wanted to tell me all the horrible injustices that were happening at the Lawton Police Department. Some said Todd was a vicious snake who tried to circumvent or even attack the current administration. Some said he was only guilty of being good at working the system to catch drug dealers, and interests at the department targeted him because he was sure to be next in line for a promotion over the chief’s son.

I always refer to this case as the beginning of my end as a liked reporter.

Then, it was time to write about Ronnie Smith being fired, forced to leave, resigning, whatever really happened (but didn’t, according to three days of interviews with the former city manager). A whole army of Ronnie-ites came out to sign a petition to have him hired back at the department; They filled the town hall to beg the council for him to come back. Meanwhile, officers at the department were pointing out the fact that he (allegedly) lied under oath during Palmer’s arbitration about officers being investigated by the OSBI.

Ronnie said he testified he was not aware of the investigation, even though he subsequently said he remembered when it started. He just thought it had concluded. Officers were pointing out the fact that Ronnie Smith had a group of select, protected friends who would always be next in line for promotions and never be reprimanded for wrongdoing. They provided names and case information to support their arguments about how bad it was to be a police officer under the former Chief.

Things really got heated during this story, and I was actually afraid I would be followed when I went home at night. It was a hot topic, and apparently, still is due to the fact that Ronnie Smith, despite allegations he was either incompetent or malicious in the performance of his job as chief, is a pretty damn nice guy.

And here we are a year later doing the exact. Same. Thing.

Some of the same people who critiqued Smith for nepotism (there was an actual lawsuit filed, by the way) are now remaining silent on the same practice of favoritism allegedly endorsed by new Chief Smith. There are more officers (some that used to be on the “friends” list) that are finding out how officers on the outside used to have it, and arguments about unfair practices, low morale and poor leadership are being regurgitated.

I’ll admit, it sounds like it really sucks. Being a LEO is already difficult, stressful and thankless. They’re held to higher standards than other human beings. They’re overworked and underpaid (like most human beings). They have to swallow their pride and help people who may have hurled an insult their way the day before, and constantly worry whether they’re going to even come home unharmed at the end of the day. It’s rough, and the last thing any officer needs is to feel they aren’t appreciated at their place of employment.

Maybe New Chief Smith was onto something last week when this reporter asked him about the scuttle of low morale at his department. He turned to look at his computer screen briefly and sighed before making this paraphrased statement:

I’ve worked at multiple jurisdictions all over the country, and there’s always going to be problems with low morale. You can’t come into a department and make any changes without making some people upset. It’s the same everywhere you go.

Is that a solution-oriented response? Of course not. Is that somewhat lazy and uninspired? Sure. But is it likely the truth? Possibly.

It is quite obvious that things have turned south at the Lawton Police Department, and have been heading that direction for several years– before Old Chief left and New Chief came.

Officers, in my opinion, should never be afraid of their superiors. Not like, “Oh, I did a bad job, and now I have to pay for it,” afraid, but “I don’t know if I’m going to be fired for some personal rather than professional reason” afraid. If anyone has recently looked at the Lawton Leaker Facebook page (don’t lie, they have like 900 friends), the chaos at LPD is apparent.

Officers are voicing the same concerns I heard under Ronnie Smith: If you’re not a good-ole-boy, you won’t get promoted or worse. If you are a good-ole-boy, you can get away with whatever you want. But this fear of reprimand for speaking out is somewhat new.

A lot of relationships between law enforcement, city management, the media, the city attorney, etc. are naturally plagued by adversity. Everyone’s intentions are almost a polar opposite to one another– The city manger wants/needs to save money and maintain a positive image for Lawton while the police department wants/needs money to address a growing crime problem. Police need to use some questionable tactics to combat crime in the city, but the city attorney doesn’t want to argue or settle possible claims they may cause.

The police department wants to withhold information from the public to lessen the scrutiny on their officers, the media wants to present their consumers with as much information about the city as possible.

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   All these conflicting interests mean every city official is constantly engaged in a game of push and pull, give and take with the others. So while arguments about shift changes or promotions are sort of part of the territory, this attitude that city employees, primarily officers, cannot participate in their community without fear of reprimand is unacceptable.
Even though I haven’t seen the memo, I have no doubt that city administrators have instructed police to refrain from sounding off on Facebook about police matters or face reprimand. It’s not the first time.

   When police fired upon a suicidal woman earlier this year and the 30K followers of a local media outlet began barking orders about how police SHOULD have handled the situation (BTW, it turns out the woman died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound), one officer chimed in. He is actually an officer who shot and killed a man years ago in a highly volatile and publicized homicide, which ended with him being cleared of any wrongdoing. Basically, if anyone has a meaningful morsel to add to a conversation about the use-of-force continuum, this is the guy.

   From what I understand, his bosses saw his attempt to educate the Internet and instructed him never to do so again. Why? Why is educating people and talking about the community in which we all live a punishable offense?

   I’ve always found it humorous that when police officers want the improve relationships with citizens, they always make some generic statement about how “sharing leads to understanding of our job and the stresses we face.” The idea that “openness precedes solutions” doesn’t jive with the policy decisions being made.

   When I first started interviewing LPD officers in 2008, I was free to call detectives for specific information about their cases to clarify or check the status. I was free to walk into their offices and ask for tips about how to prevent credit card fraud or copper thefts to include in my story for the public. I could go to the scene of a homicide and talk with the supervisor there about what they had at that point in time.

   A couple years later, media is no longer allowed to walk past the records counter without an escort. Okay. Media is no longer allowed to phone detectives for information without approval from a supervisor. Okay. Detectives are no longer allowed to give interviews at all. Hmmm. For several weeks during the change, I quit responding to scenes of any crimes because the supervisor at the scene would 99.9% of the time say, “You have to get any comments on the matter from the PIO.” That’s improving.

   All releases on cases must come from the public information officer, who is actually a department head with little to no time to perform the additional duty. He does what he can with what he has, and I appreciate him a great deal. But the department has made it clear they don’t want anyone, even the public, knowing anything about anything.

   Media were previously allowed to review all the department’s reports (minus juvenile reports) that were filed in the last 24 hours. Now, LPD says it cost them too much money for the paper and have printed a log (which is required by the Open Records Act) of reported offenses, times and locations as well as a jail log of inmates arrested and booked in within the last 24 hours (Open Records Act says it’s supposed to be a complete list of current inmates, but whatevs).

   That’s fine too. I agree that police shouldn’t do the media’s job, but when they bottleneck all the information that’s being released down to two sheets of paper a day, that information sure as shit better be right. Guess what? It’s not.

   For weeks, the “log” of reported incidents has not been in consecutive order, as it is required to be by law. The reports that police don’t want to be publicized are listed as “incidents.” The records captain’s exact words were “They’re nothing!” But myself and other media personnel have found the a few interesting examples of things reported as “incidents” at LPD:

-A woman being washed away in a canal by flood waters during a storm.
-A child dying after being run over by a car
-A house burning down and components of a meth lab being found inside

You tell me, are these “nothing?”

   The daily “log” contains at least five reports a day that are weeks, if not an entire month old. There has been at least one case in the last six weeks in which a vehicle was reported stolen, a man was stopped for speeding in said stolen vehicle, issued tickets and released because the report of a stolen vehicle had not yet been entered. The meth lab “incident” for example happened in September but wasn’t presented to media for possible review until mid October. That would have been a short news story, but I suppose it would’ve made Lawton “look bad.”

   Hell, it might have even resulted in someone being arrested and charged had the public known about it, but that’s not important. It might inspire a property owner to go check their vacant houses again for signs of criminal activity.

   Yesterday, a man arrested and booked into the city jail for meth possession was not included on the jail log as one of the arrests in the last 24 hours. So how the hell is anyone ever supposed to know what is going on in Lawton? How is anyone ever supposed to know what police are actually doing?

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The numbers never lie

   The point of all this bitching and moaning is that it really is frustrating to experience the pressure of an administrator’s thumb. That city personnel, at this point in time, would rather keep their citizens in the dark about everything and are willing to go to great lengths to keep it that way. They tell citizens to trust them, to help them with open investigations, that “we’re all in this together.” That’s right Big Brother, we are.

   The department has, what I call, “a policy of non-disclosure,” meaning if they don’t have to release it by law, they don’t. Not only does this go against the spirit of the Open Records Act, it isn’t really in our best interests. We have to know what’s going on now, today if we want to change our steps for the future.

   And media has withheld stories previously when there were concerns of a suspect trying to run or destroy evidence, because there was a dialogue and mutual respect between conflicting interests. We talked to each other, and that is what we need more than ever at this point.

   That communication is practically gone, leaving Lawtonians in a stagnant pool of hurt feelings and misunderstood intentions. If we don’t knock it off, we’re really going to ruin an opportunity to grow this southwest Oklahoma town into something great. We’ve already been called a soulless place with no culture by This Land Press. We’ve got a reputation as being one of the most dangerous places in the country to live. Yet, new businesses are coming. New projects are coming. Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to hide information and silence city officials who want talk about their community and make improvements. We will never attract the kind of growth and assets in Lawton that big cities have if we continue operating with a small-town mentality of protecting our friends even when they’re wrong and punishing those who want to do what’s right.

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“Some animals are more equal than others”

   I’ve always said, “You can let information spin out-of-control, or you can control the spin.” That doesn’t mean slapping tape on everyone’s mouths and burying heads in the sand. It means acknowledge information and explain it from your perspective. If you can’t, then you shouldn’t be mad when citizens get fed up and either call for you to step down or don’t want to work with you in the future.

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