Early on a bright Saturday morning in mid May, a St. Petersburg man was shot to death in the parking lot of a large apartment complex at the busy intersection of Ulmerton and Ridge roads in Largo. The Largo Police Department told the public nothing about it and defends its decision to stay mum. The department isn't just wrong. It also is missing an opportunity to strengthen its ties to the community it serves.
Now that word of the killing has come out, the public is left to wonder whether serious crime has become so pervasive in Largo that police consider a murder in such a public place of no interest to residents. Or is it that the Largo Police Department, under new police Chief John Carroll, just thinks this crime, and the fact that a killer is still at large, is none of the public's business?
As of late last week, no one had been arrested in the death of Clifton Lamar Davis on May 15 at the Oak Ridge Apartments. Police responding to a 911 call that morning found Davis, 28, lying on the pavement, shot in the chest. The department didn't announce Davis' death or send out a press release to local media. A St. Petersburg Times reporter learned of the slaying when she happened across a search warrant the department filed on July 13 as part of its ongoing murder investigation.
Largo police Lt. Mike Loux told the Times it wasn't necessary to inform the public because "we didn't have a concern for the safety of the public." The department apparently has identified a possible suspect in the shooting but doesn't consider the person a threat to the public — though someone clearly was a threat to Clifton Davis.
Another reason not to inform the public, Loux said, is that the investigation could be jeopardized.
"It can be counterproductive for us to release details that might scare away a suspect," he said.
It is not uncommon for police to withhold some details about a crime or crime scene to help them identify the perpetrator. But Largo police told the public nothing at all. If releasing nothing is what's necessary to help solve a crime, then how can other police agencies routinely send out announcements about crimes, including murders, yet manage to track down and arrest suspects?
Fighting crime is a partnership between residents and law enforcement officers. Public safety agencies are obliged to share as much information as is practical about criminal activity so residents can be informed about what's going on in their community, assist investigators if they have relevant information, and make decisions about their own safety. At the very least, residents of the Oak Ridge Apartments and surrounding homes have the right to know that someone had been gunned down in their neighborhood but that police had the situation under control.
Some law enforcement agencies understand that an important part of their public safety mission is to inform, educate and reassure the public. Openness and communication advance that mission. Secrecy does not.