Police arrested two men at a Maryland rest stop early Thursday morning. One is John Allen Muhammad, a 41-year old Gulf War veteran and Muslim convert. The other is Lee Malvo, a 17-year-old immigrant from Jamaica. A rifle found in their car is ballistically linked to a series of shootings around the Washington D.C. area between Oct. 2 and Oct. 22.
These men might not actually be the shooters. That will be up to a jury to decide. But it’s noteworthy how quickly the suspects were caught, once police started giving out some hard information.
Just before midnight, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose held a news conference and announced authorities were looking for the two men. Authorities put out a bulletin that they were searching for a blue Chevrolet Caprice with New Jersey license plates.
Less than an hour later, a civilian called Maryland state police to report the car was parked at a rest stop on Interstate 70 near Frederick. By 4 am, the suspects were in custody.
The police might have found that car eventually. Or stopped it at a roadblock. But we didn’t have to wait, because an alert civilian spotted it and turned the suspects in. And that civilian was alert because the authorities told the media what they were looking for.
As I wrote in this space last week, “it’s time for the police to alter their policy and release everything they have. Sketches. Partial license plate numbers. Anything and everything.
“Getting information out is not, as Chief Moose said, letting the media solve the case. But it might allow the media -- and millions of readers and listeners -- to help solve the case. And that’s in everyone’s best interest.”
It might be years before we learn exactly what the police knew, and when they knew it. Maybe they released the names and descriptions of Muhammad and Malvo as soon as they had them. Or maybe they held back that information for several hours, or even several days.
But there’s no doubt that making the information public was crucial. The quick arrests prove that. These suspects were detained, with the help of the media.
Throughout the sniper saga, the media provided great service to authorities. One technique police used after several of the shootings was to set up roadblocks to shut down major highways and then search every car. This, of course, caused huge traffic tie-ups, and did not bring in the shooter.
Authorities asked radio traffic reporters not to tell listeners where those roadblocks were, or where the traffic tie-ups were. For the most part, those reporters complied, even though that meant thousands of Washingtonians were stuck for hours in rush hour traffic Tuesday morning.
It’s defensible that police wouldn’t want radio broadcasts about where their checkpoints were. After all, if the shooter listened, that would allow him to slip away on the back roads.
However, as the case stretched into its third week, police were still withholding too much information, rather than getting it out for public use. As WTTG news director Katherine Green told the Washington Post Oct. 23, “with each day [the police] are getting a little more aggressive in their efforts to contain information about what's happening with the investigation and how they are handling the response”.
At the same time, authorities weren’t shy about using the media to try to communicate with the shooter. On Oct. 20, Chief Moose said: “To the person who left us a message at the Ponderosa [Saturday] night, you gave us a telephone number. We do want to talk to you. Call us at the number you provided.”
He asked the media to repeat his message frequently, and it was given heavy coverage. On Oct. 22, Moose spoke to the killers again, “We have researched the option you stated and found that it is not possible electronically to comply in the manner that you requested”.
He also told reporters about the contents of a letter found at a shooting site three days earlier. That letter threatened area residents: “Your children are not safe anywhere at any time.”
What else did the letter include? Any information that might have helped civilians help the police? Moose wouldn’t say. Reporters were forced to rely on unnamed police sources for the small amount of information they could get.
All this isn’t to say the police didn’t do their job. The law enforcement performance was outstanding in every other respect. However, authorities should remember the killer is the enemy, not the media. We want to help the police, and can help the police, solve crimes. But only if they let us.