Thursday, June 26, 2008

Eat, Sleep and Breathe it

In light of everything that's happened the past couple of weeks, I guess it makes sense we were due for some good news. But as I head into tomorrow's press conference, I would just like to state for the record how godawfully tired I am of the words "murder," "homicide" and "slaying."In fact, with the number of high-profile killings I'm trying to keep my finger on the pulse of, I'm going to have to create some new synonyms or risk appearing inarticulate.

Madison Police announced today they have a suspect in custody for the murder of Joel Marino. I couldn't be happier at this news, and if it turns out to indeed be the killer, an entire corps of detectives deserves a barrage of back slaps, a standing ovation and a staggering round of drinks. The Capital Times is reporting they tracked the suspect down by poring over mental health records, through which they found a man who matched a suspect seen the day of Marino's death. A detective personally made the trip to Minnesota and interviewed the man, who, supposedly, admitted to killing Marino.

If this turns out to be legitimate, the sheer amount of grunt police work that went into this find is staggering. I am in awe of the lengths to which Madison's detective corps went for this case, and they are indeed a credit to the badges they wear.

With that much said, I can't help but take note that, even on what should by all accounts be a turning point for the Madison cops, the relationship between the press and the police is as strained as ever. Indeed, the press release that kicked the entire Madison media body into action late this afternoon was almost antagonistically simple.

Officer Mike Hanson didn't write much -- about half a page, in fact -- and what he did say was short, vague and to-the-point. In a nutshell, it read, "We've arrested a guy somewhere in Minnesota, we're extraditing him, and we're not saying anything else until the press conference tomorrow." And as any reporter in town will tell you, the department has been on information lockdown ever since.

I understand the need to get a whole lot of work done by tomorrow morning. I applaud the men and women who are still hunched over their desks as I type this in my flannel pants and the comfort of my own home. But isn't that what you hire a guy like Joel Despain for? Isn't the point of paying a public information officer having someone to act as the lone go-between for the police and the press so the cops can grind away at work while only occasionally fielding questions from someone who's already caught up on all but the latest developments?

Funny thing, that, actually. In what can simply be described as one of the most enviable occurences of fortuitous timing in public relations history, Joel Despain has been on vacation for a good week or two. A number of other regulars at the Madison Police Department have been filling in for him, including Officer Mike Hanson, Officer Howard Payne and Lt. Jerry Tomczak. I don't think any of them knew what they were getting into when they volunteered for that duty.

But back to the issue. Half a million people (excepting, I guess, the radio DJ who walked into our newsroom today and asked who Joel Marino was) in the Madison area have been thirsting for answers in an information dessert for months, and the police this afternoon handed them a shot glass of Tang and said, "We'll get you another round tomorrow."

In the mad flurry of phone calls I made after we received that email, I ended up on the horn with Minneapolis Police Department Sgt. Jesse Garcia. He was incredibly helpful, to the extent he was able, at least. In the span of a half hour, he dispatched a dozen phone calls to determine the suspect was NOT, in fact, arrested in Minneapolis. Yes, we were very strapped for leads.

When we touched base later, after the initial frenzy had settled down, we had a moment to chat. Garcia mentioned he had been on the phone with a few Madison police just to make sure this case was not one his department should be aware of. He even kidded me a little, "It doesn't sound like they want to talk to you right now. You've been too rough on them."

It's a universal misperception that hits reporters the most. When one newspaper, radio or TV station reports something, the perception quickly becomes, "It's the media out to get us..." As in, "every one of you bastards with a press pass."

In this case, I personally was guilty as charged, so I laughed about it. I explained that, yes, a number of us in the media had taken some pot shots at the police administration for what I still consider to be an overzealous approach to controlling the information about these stranger murders. I told him about Kelly Nolan, who turned up dead a year ago, and how her family, friends and neighbors still don't even know how she died.

I expressed my belief that an informed public is a public armed to defend itself -- maybe even help police catch the perpetrators -- and he agreed with me. "Yeah, it sounds like they could really do a lot more to work with you guys on this," Garcia told me.

He explained to me that his desk is located in the Minneapolis Chief of Police's office. He is privy to attend meetings with the Chief, and they work very closely with the press to release as much information as possible. When I told him how Madison Police Chief Noble Wray subverted public information officer Joel Despain by keeping him out of the loop early in the Brittany Zimmermann case and going around him to announce a week into the case her door had been broken down, Garcia was bemused.

"That doesn't sound very effective," he said.

"It's a miserable way to play the game," I agreed.

"Should it really be a game though?" he asked, then caught himself. "I mean, I guess it kind of is any way you play it. But aren't the police and the press ultimately in it for the same reason?"

He's right, we agreed. After all, I could be making a whole lot more money as...well, just about anything that's not a reporter, but I chose this line of work for now as a means to better society as I see it. "Knowledge is power," and I want to protect the public, just as the police do in their own way. Sometimes the means to that end differ between the media and the authorities, but those differences are out of control in Madison.

Granted it's skewed, but from my viewpoint, the police started what's become a bitter, even spiteful tug-of-war game with all the facts as a rope. The harder we pull, the harder they pull back, to the point where we're picking battles over some pretty petty issues.

So tomorrow is a big day for Madison's police department. The men and women who have helped bring this suspect into custody still have a lot of work ahead of them, but they'll finally get some of the credit they're long overdue.

The police administration has a chance to shed a whole lot of information on a case that has, quite frankly, been scaring the crap out of people for far too long. It's certainly possible they'll simply hand out another vague page of information and spit out a few useless soundbites, but I'm hopeful this press conference will mark a new information modus operandi for the Marino case, if not the unsolved murders altogether.

One thing's for certain: I'd probably better wear a tie to work tomorrow.

1 comment:

Emily said...

I'm just sitting here, nodding my head at pretty much everything you've written here.

I'll be waiting hopefully for the press conference today. Sorry you'll have to wear a tie, but good luck!