MOUNT VERNON — Detectives never know where the one clue may come from which can solve the case they have been working hard to crack.
Using the media as a tool to seek clues, leads, and tips from the public, is one method investigators can use to save time reaching out to entire communities and neighborhoods to find unknown witnesses.
Crimes throughout recent history have been solved with the help of police officers using publicity as a crime-solving tool.
Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was apprehended after a sketch of an unknown bombing suspect inundated the airwaves for days. Alert members of the public reported to authorities seeing a young man who resembled the sketch.
The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, was ultimately brought to justice after his manifesto was printed in newspapers across the country. His brother read the work and recognized it as Kaczynski’s. This break came after the FBI had conducted one of its most expensive investigations in history without success.
Some detectives will say, the media can be a tool for investigators seeking tips from the public. The often complicated, and delicately balanced relationship between law enforcement and the media can be the key to breaking a case wide open, or breaking down a case altogether.
Knowing what information to release to the public and when, can help detectives find witnesses who may otherwise slip through the cracks unnoticed, and learn of information which may be critical to finding the criminal they are searching for.
Knox County Sheriff David Barber said investigators determine what information should be released to the media based on the needs of each investigation. Barber regularly appeals to the public to share information with detectives.
“The person who has the information may not realize this is the tip which could help detectives solve the crime,” Barber said. “What may not seem that important to the witness can make the difference.”
Mount Vernon Police Detective Cpl. Matt Dailey said while the public may want to know every detail of an ongoing investigation, releasing too much information can be detrimental to an investigation.
“If people know too much, it could keep us from solving the case,” Dailey said. “[Information] may not get released to the media that may hinder our investigation.”
One example would be if information released allowed those who have committed crimes and have not yet been caught to know what direction police are going with their investigation, making it easier for the perpetrators to evade authorities.
Dailey said he and the other detectives in his unit always base their decision regarding what information to release on whether or not it will jeopardize the investigation, and most importantly, whether or not public safety is at risk.
Dailey stressed that public safety would always override investigative needs, even if information released for the sake of public safety could negatively affect an investigation.
“Any time we think there is something that endangers a group of people, we will do a media release,” he said. “Their safety comes first, whether it hinders our investigation or not,” he said.
Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray said investigators at the Bureau of Criminal Investigations and Identification and all law enforcement agents in Ohio are protected by the Ohio Public Records Law which allows investigators to keep information confidential which could jeopardize an open investigation.
“That does shield the premature disclosure of those types of materials, so generally we would stand on that if people are seeking information in the middle of an investigation,” Cordray explained.
“Once an investigation is closed, unless there’s an uncharged suspect, things do become public information,” the attorney general added.
Dailey said he believes the public may not always be served by knowing all that goes on behind the scenes in law enforcement. He believes too much exposure of the crimes which happen locally could lead to panic.
“The thing about law enforcement in our county is there are a large number of things that happen in our county, and within our city limits, that people will never know and they don’t need to know,” Dailey said of the crimes he and his fellow detectives investigate every day.
Cordray said he believes ultimately the public is served when responsible media works with law enforcement to bring information to and from the public to aid in investigations.
“I actually regard publicity as a very important tool for law enforcement,” Cordray said. “We (BCI) have had a number of situations which we have attempted to bring to the public’s attention, where we thought they might have information that could provide the right information to us in cases.”
“I think the public can be very helpful in terms of helping us investigate crime,” Cordray said. He added, public awareness through the media of crime and its consequences has additional benefits.
“It’s also important to publicize the law enforcement work that is done so that people are aware there is consequences for criminal activity,” Cordray said. “That helps deter people from going down that road,” he said.