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New police chief's first job-Revamp information system

November 04, 1999

New police chief's first job: Revamp information system

Hagerstown's new police chief, Arthur Smith, takes the reins of the city police department today, just in time to deal with a problem that has an all-too-familiar ring to those who cover that agency - an unacceptable delay in the release of information important to public safety. If Smith doesn't end this outdated, unwise practice, we'll be surprised and more than a little disappointed.

Here are the facts: A 14-year-old girl was sexually assaulted inside North Hagerstown High School at knifepoint on Monday, but police didn't report the crime for two days, because they feared publicity would jeopardize their investigation. In the meantime, students heard only rumors of what had happened, in part because top school officials unwisely agreed with the police decision to suppress the news.

According to the charging documents, the 14-year-old victim was lured back into the school building sometime after 5:15 p.m. Monday and attacked by a knife-wielding man. Shortly thereafter, she notified police. On Wednesday, the victim picked the suspect out of a photo line-up and he was arrested at 8:20 p.m. that night.

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Acting police Chief Robert Hart said releasing information earlier might have jeopardized the investigation and caused panic if police had announced that a crime had taken place and that they had no suspects. Deputy Superintendent Theresa Flak said the school system didn't announce the attack "in deference to the family and the police department investigation."

To these officials, we ask just one question: What if a student, unaware that a classmate had already been attacked, failed to take precautions and was herself sodomized in a school building? Thank God that didn't happen, but by not putting that information out there, the school system and the police department denied students and their parents information vital to their public safety.

As to Flak's concern for the family, when something terrible happens, we don't doubt it makes it worse for the victims and their families to read about it in the local newspaper. We don't publish such stories to torment them, however, but to protect those who haven't yet become victims by publicizing descriptions of suspects and the conditions under which they might strike. And sexual assault victims are never named anyway, according to a long-standing Herald-Mail policy.

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