Secrecy serves no purpose

Mar. 6, 2013  PLYMOUTH EAGLE.




John Werth, Northville Township Director, Public Safety
John Werth, Northville Twp. Director, Public Safety
Al Cox, Plymouth Police Chief, Director of Public Safety
Al Cox, Plymouth Police Chief, Director of Public Safety










With apologies to Charles Dickens, this is a tale of two communities.

Within the past few months, there was a police officer involved shooting in each of these municipalities. In each instance, a suspected criminal was shot and killed by a law enforcement officer. In the first, a City of Plymouth officer was involved in a shooting in Plymouth Township. In the latest, the incident began in Northville Township and the suspect was shot and killed by a state trooper in Salem Township.

About 48-hours after the shooting, Northville Township Public Safety Director John Werth released the patrol car videotapes of the incident during a press conference. He detailed exactly what went on and provided answers to the questions of reporters from both television and print media. He pulled no punches, that we could see, and no matter how tough the questions seemed to be, or what the consequences, Werth presented a full and complete answer.

He provided the name of the deceased, talked about why the officers from his department were pursuing him, what happened as they did and the exact protocols they employed as they encountered and interrogated him. He provided details along with his expressed confidence in his officers’ handling of the situation and their adherence to their training.

He also said that the state police would continue to investigate the situation, particularly since it was a round from a trooper’s gun that killed the suspect.

That entire meeting and attitude was quite a contrast to the handling of the fatal shooting last fall in Plymouth Township when a City of Plymouth officer shot and killed a man after responding to a call of vandalism at a township location.

In that instance, City of Plymouth Police Chief and Director of Public Safety Al Cox issued a very brief statement which contained surprisingly little information. Cox referred all questions to a detective in the state police, who was in charge of the investigation into the shooting.

After weeks, well, months, the state police investigator released his findings. The patrol car video tapes, he said, showed that the suspect stepped out of camera range when the actual threat to the officer and shooting took place. He did not release those tapes, nor was there any public comment or report from the local chief regarding the completion of the investigation.

We are simply pointing out the differences in handling of these situations. In one community, transparency and communication seems to be an important factor in the public safety department. In the other, it appears the incident was shrouded in secrecy and cloaked in obfuscation.

Obviously, a serious difference in the philosophy of public communication and openness in public safety and government exists, and not only between these two departments. The openness of communication is shared and even required by chiefs in several communities we cover where the public’s right to know is considered an important step in protecting them from harm. In others, it is as difficult, if not more so, to obtain any information about police activity or crimes, other than those routine events on the police logs.

In several communities, the attitude about communication with the public comes directly from the department leader and in others; it is an effort to control the management of the public safety department by a municipal official.

We understand and respect the confidentiality of ongoing investigations, often used by police as the motivation for failing to provide public information. We have neither of those feelings for the overt efforts of others to act in secret, besmirching the reputations for professional conduct of the men and women in their departments with questions, conjecture and rumors.

The men and women who put their lives on the line every day deserve the kind of open communication and transparency Werth offered. Anything less is a disservice to the jobs these officers do.


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