Thursday, April 10, 2008

CSI Madison ?!?

The state journal reported today that Brittany Zimmermann's killer forced entry into her apartment on Doty Street before killing her. This upset me a bit, and not just because they beat us to the story. In fact, they beat everybody to the story, including their spokesman Joel Despain. As I understand it, he was just as surprised as everyone when Madison Police Chief Noble Wray decided to come forward with the information.

What alarms me is that, as members of the media and an informed public, we operated under the assumption that Zimmermann's killer walked through an unlocked front door and assailed her. As a downtown resident myself, one who could fire a waterballoon launcher and hit the alley where authorities found Joel Marino's body, I took heed to the warnings of friends and family. They cautioned me, "Lock your doors, even in the middle of the day."

If our original assumptions were correct, and if police are correct in assuming Zimmermann's slaying was indeed a random act, and if they are correct in saying her killer is still at large in the downtown community, locking the door would have been enough to keep anyone safe...Except now, Chief Wray adds, almost as if it were an afterthought, that the killer broke into her house. And it seems like, if my friends and family really wanted to give me good advice, "You ought to consider reinforcing your front door with quarter-inch steel rebar and plating the windows" would have been more appropriate.

I understand the need to keep certain details of an investigation shielded from the public view. As a reporter, I deal with it, I accept it like a brick wall, every day. In Joel Despain's written statement to State Journal reporter Sandy Cullen, he makes note of it as well:

"When you have a homicide where there is the distinct possibility that a true stranger/strangers might be the perpetrator/perpetrators things like method of entry, and cause of death are often withheld. The reason for this is that detectives must rely heavily on interviews wih potential witnesses/suspects wherein only they and the killer/killers or witness/witnesses possess the details of the crime. It is not unusual that some contacted during an investigation -- who because of things like mental illness, or alcohol/drug abuse -- will proide bogus confessions of information. They may purport to know things they do not, and the only way to determine their veracity is by holding back key details. Police Chief Wray, as you know, is also keenly aware of the question regarding public safety as it may relate to the mode of entry in the Zimmermann case. He took time deliberating whether revealing this detail would outweigh investigators desire to withhold the information while they search for a killer. It has proven to be a difficult decision. However, Chief Wray has decided -- after conducting this balancing test -- that the right thing to do was to confirm to you that there was forced entry on a door to the building in which Zimmermann resided..."

You're DAMN SKIPPY the right thing to do is to confirm the damn detail! A DETAIL?!? A measily, worthless little DETAIL?!? We're talking about the public safety of forty-two thousand University of Wisconsin students and maybe twenty-five thousand more downtown residents. Telling us the door was forced open is simply a START. How about telling us HOW it was forced open, and what WE can DO to keep it from happening to US?

Chief Wray certainly "took time deliberating" over the release of this information...eight days, in fact, during which it could have happened again. I won't insinuate there's a connection between Zimmermann's murder last week and Marino's murder in February, but I wouldn't be the first to do so. The similarities are striking and apparent to anyone who can read. I will, however, drag the other THREE unsolved murders in the past year out onto the table.

Authorities have remained ever-so-tight-lipped about the details surrounding each, but it doesn't seem to have helped them catch the killers. To this day, we don't know how UW-Whitewater student Kelly Nolan was killed after she disappeared from State Street, and police have yet to release any details other than where she was found.

I have a sticker on my computer monitor that reads, "Knowledge is power. Arm yourself." Under this standard, the Madison Police Department has left every single Madison resident vulnerable and defenseless.

Now I know that we're talking about Madison, a metropolitan area of only half a million. Furthermore, I know there are cities that would, pun intended, kill for a murder rate as low as ours. That's what's appealing to so many Madisonians.

Policing is an occupation that puts glory in danger and duty, and Madison ain't New York City. But if Chief Wray and his detectives are occluding details that are in the public's best interest to know so they can have a macho "CSI moment," we have more than a murder problem in Madison. Detective Sipowicz might wear a tie with short sleeves, but even he isn't foolish enough to endanger the public by squelching information. It makes you wonder if they don't just clamp down on details as some kind of demonstration of their authority as police.

It makes you wonder what mistakes and ineptitudes might be exposed if the investigations were more visible to the public. Not that I have any reason to suspect the police have handled the murder investigations in anything but a competent and professional manner. But they have utterly failed in their obligation to keep the public abreast of the crucial knowledge they may have in these murders that affect, endanger and frighten us all.

As a reporter, it becomes easy to fall into the habit of accepting it at face value when a member of law enforcement tells you they've given all the information they can give. It's the authorities' responsibility to keep the public informed and safe, and it's the media's responsibility to do the same. But beyond that, it falls to the media to out the authorities when they're not holding up their end of the bargain.


Shannon Stricker said...

Coming from a small community and now living in a huge metro area, you can't imagine my distress when I hear about another Madison murder. The MPD is seemingly incapable of solving anything more than "which drunk college student broke that window?" It leads me to wonder what kind of homicide investigation training the detectives receive, if any. If I was a resident or college student in that area, I would be terrified, and I live in metro Atlanta. At what point does the state government look at Madison and go, ok, this place is supposed to be so safe, and yet there have been, what, four, five UNSOLVED murders there in the last YEAR?! Maybe there is something wrong? It's just shocking.

Timothy said...

i understand what you're saying dw's. however, i also understand the police not wanting to disclose that information as well. certain details and aspects of crimes become incredibly powerful tools when interrogating suspects. and honestly, if you aren't already living in a state of heighten awareness, this tidbit really shouldn't change that much of your daily routine. i mean, i read an article about a week after the murder where reporters were going door to door and trying peoples doors and if they were open, asking people why they weren't being more cautious. one response from a kid was that he doesn't lock his door because he has a baseball bat. come now, are you serious?