— Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo in 1961
The annals of U.S. crime are full of miscarriages of justice and mistakes by police officers. Innocent men accused of murder have been hanged. Other men have been wrongly convicted of rape and armed robbery. Still others have been wrongly sent to prison for decades.
Far less serious, but aggravating to media reporters, columnists and commentators, is police withholding information. Such a “shutout” happened recently after a fatal shooting spree at a Sparks middle school.
The amateurish Sparks police chief originally withheld the name of the 12-year-old shooter in the killing and wounding witnessed by 30 students who knew his name. Only intense pressure by the media forced him to reveal the name as required by Nevada law.
The Reno Gazette-Journal, in an angry page one editorial, wrote: “This is unacceptable … State law is clear: the name is public information … Refusing to release the name serves no law enforcement or investigative purpose.”
Sparks Police Chief Tom Miller at first declared why the name was being withheld: “We have been in contact with the parents. They are grieving and going through a very challenging, difficult time.”
Compassion is fine. But it was woefully misplaced in a huge regional story. In was so big the story appeared in the New York Times, California newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle and got extensive media coverage in Nevada.
Barry Smith, head of the Nevada Press Association, weighed in. He wrote in a RGJ column: “By attempting to hold back information, investigators can do long-term harm to their communities. Gossip and speculation rush in to fill the vacuum.”
Dennis Myers, news editor of the Reno News & Review, wrote to me: “Compassion should not conceal responsibility. Government is responsible to all of us, not just to selected citizens.”
Cory Farley, Sunday columnist for the RGJ, wore journalistic blinders despite 40 years in newspapering. His column has long been maundering and meandering. But the one he wrote after the Sparks murder was absurd.
He declared that the public does not need to know the boy’s name. Farley added: “the family is already suffering. Why load this on them?” Answer: the public has every right to know.
Moreover, the public should know other key facts the bungling Sparks “constable” refuses to disclose. Two weeks after the shooting we still don’t know what we need to know in a nation wracked by daily shooting deaths, school gun rampages and demands for stricter gun controls.
Namely: who are the parents? Where at home did the kid get the gun? Where was the gun hidden? Did the parents instruct him how to use it? Why a semi-automatic handgun? Why the cover-up?
Wild rumors abound if the parents are not named. Was the killer the son of a police officer in Sparks? Was the shooter from a family of illegal immigrants? Was the gun needed to protect the owner of a business?
Martha Bellisle, stellar reporter for the RGJ who specializes in takeouts of major community issues, says that is precisely the kind of information needed. “I and RGJ reporters have spent 12 hours a day digging, calling, reading, searching,” she says.
So a question for Chief Miller: will you ever get professional?
Since this column was written José and Liliana Reyes admitted that their son was the shooter. However, they answered none of the hard questions as to how and why he had access to a gun.
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.