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Police, TV media see shooting differently

Nester DeJesus had shot a Tampa police officer with a semiautomatic weapon and taken a hostage inside an apartment. Now he was worried about the consequences.

Talking with police negotiators, DeJesus and his girlfriend, Paula Gutierrez, continually asked about the condition of the officer, something negotiators would not reveal.

The couple then learned the truth _ that the officer had died _ from a television report a little more than an hour into the three-hour standoff.

"Why are you lying to me?" Gutierrez screamed at police. "We just heard on Bay News 9 she's dead!"

The revelation could have given DeJesus and Gutierrez a more dangerous frame of mind, said Sgt. John Bennett, a tactical team supervisor who had gone to the Crossings apartment complex July 6, where Officer Lois Marrero had been killed.

"Once they know someone is dead," Bennett said, "It's easier to kill again."

Hours later, after DeJesus had committed suicide and Gutierrez had surrendered, police lashed out at the media.

What Bennett did not know, until the Times told him, was that Police Chief Bennie Holder had announced to reporters during the standoff that the wounded officer had died. Only then did Bay News 9 report the information.

Holder has declined to talk about why he released the information. In Holder's defense, Bennett said, a hostage situation after a police shooting is ""a very chaotic, emotional scene."

Such situations present choices for police and journalists alike, experts say, and it is inevitable the two sides will clash.

"My goal is to urge journalists to think about these situations before they're in the minefield," said Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times. "Just as a SWAT team prepares, so should journalists."

Such forethought could prevent the media from interfering with police during hostage or terrorist situations, Steele said.

Journalists should assume a suspect has full access to their reporting, he said, and should never show the tactical movements by police.

Bennett said much of that sensitivity was lacking July 6.

One of the stations, he's not sure which one, was showing an aerial view of a tactical team tank that had been brought to the scene. "You could see the sniper in the tank," Bennett said. "That infuriated me."

At another point in the standoff, a station showed officers raising a ladder to the second-story apartment window.

In addition, Bennett said, the clamor of media helicopters overhead was so loud he could not communicate over the radio with his team. He had to order the helicopters to back off.

For many, the situation was similar to one three years ago when reporters followed the pursuit of Hank Earl Carr, who had killed his girlfriend's child and three law enforcement officers.

Carr took a hostage in a service station and media helicopters hovered over the scene, showing police as they moved around the building. In addition, reporters called Carr on the telephone during the standoff. Carr let the hostage go, then killed himself.

Police negotiators were furious, and demanded the media restrain its coverage of hostage situations.

For their part, most local news directors said they used restraint in their coverage of the July 6 standoff.

But police complained that promises made after the Carr standoff were thrown out the window by some stations.

"Some abided" to their agreement, said Hillsborough Sheriff's Capt. Greg Brown. "And some risked officers' lives."

Phil Metlin, vice president of news at WTVT-Ch. 13, said as journalists they have a duty to inform the public of a dangerous situation. He said the station did not show tactical movements but gave live updates from the scene during the standoff.

"What is the impact of withholding information versus informing the public?" Metlin said. "We had a very dangerous criminal at large, armed, who had just taken the officer's life. . . . If we didn't tell the public, are we possibly endangering them?"

Bill Berra, WFTS-Ch. 28 news director, said management had changed at the station since the Carr standoff.

Still, Berra said, "I don't think we showed anything that would hamper law enforcement. There's a little common sense in play. It seems to me that anyone who would have committed a crime like this would expect a lot of police activity."

The bottom line, said Jim Church, news director at WTSP-Ch. 10, is that journalists and police will never wholeheartedly agree.

"The police would prefer a blackout of all police activities," Church said. "That doesn't mean we as journalists can allow that. It's a difference between being good citizens and being totally controlled by the police. We're not going to be able to make every police officer happy in coverage."

One solution espoused by Brown, Steele and Bennett is for the media to learn more about the role of the police during a hostage standoff or terrorist situation.

While the public has a right to be informed, Bennett said, there are ways to do it that don't endanger anyone.

"We have a sense for their safety," he said. "They need to have a sense for ours."

_ Amy Herdy can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or herdysptimes.com

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