Jail Incident Reveals Communication Issues

By: Roger Sheppard
By: Roger Sheppard

Lessons to be learned about releasing more information, sooner

This past week’s news that a Parkersburg police officer was placed on administrative leave following an altercation at the Wood County Holding Center, is the kind of news no police chief, Mayor, or Sheriff likes to have.

 A lot of people will immediately assume that the officer acted improperly (whether he did or not) and that law enforcement officials will do whatever they can to sweep it under the rug.
So far, it appears that the folks in command have taken the proper steps to fully investigate this incident. Only time will tell what the police officer did, or did not, do.
An out-of-town member of the West Virginia State Police was called in to do an investigation. No one knows how in-depth that investigation will be or how long it will take. We can only hope that it is thorough and will be given whatever amount of time it takes to find all of the pertinent facts.
WTAP and other news media had to prod and pry for information about this incident.  That’s fine. That’s what we do. But the folks in charge would have been better served if they had put together a news release, with all of the details they eventually divulged to us, and distributed it as quickly as possible. Ideally, they would have followed that up by agreeing to on-camera interviews, since pictures (especially videos) are worth a thousand words.
Certainly there are some questions to which there no answers yet. Certainly, in a new or on-going investigation, there will be details investigators cannot release. We understand that. But you can tell from what we broadcast and posted on our webchannel, that there was quite a bit of information that they WERE able to give out. Why not do that in a more pro-active way?
In this age of the internet, websites, and social media, political figures and law enforcement need to understand that the absence of complete, clear information feeds the public’s curiosity and makes people suspicious.  A wise leader gets out in front of the story and doesn’t wait for the news media to start calling or nosing around.
Ten or fifteen years ago, we never ran news stories about bomb threats that turned out to be false, to try to prevent copycats. Now, since so many people hear about these threats and start calling, texting, e-mailing, and blogging about them, we’ve had to change our approach. We now do stories mostly just to combat the rumor mill.
That’s a lesson more politicians and law enforcement personnel should learn, as well.
That’s this week’s editorial.
I remember another altercation at the former Wood County Correctional Center that resulted in a death. This was the early 1980s and a young man named Jeffrey Flanigan was being in the jail for disobeying a court order that ordered him not to skip school. The only problem was, the order was placed on Flanigan when he was 17. But after he turned 18, the only place they could put him was in the general population of the Wood County jail. Yes, jail!
Another inmate, Robert Dale Shephard  … no relation to me … kicked young Jeff Flanigan to death. The sheriff at that time said a complete investigation would be done. That complete investigation consisted of the Wirt County Sheriff coming to Parkersburg and sitting down and talking with the Sheriff for a while and then writing up his report.
The circumstances surrounding Flanigan’s incarceration and death eventually were featured in a segment on ABC’s “20/20” program. Even though we’re an NBC affiliate, our News Department helped the producers of that segment with the story.
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