Editorial: Change in reporting attacks on minors long overdue

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

Public safety, more often than not, is enhanced when an informed public can take steps to protect itself. Police cannot be everywhere, all the time.

Parents aware of a string of assaults or rapes in a certain part of town, for example, may want to drive their children to school, or have them take a different route, or insist that they walk in groups. They can't do that if they don't know. Media can't warn them if they don't know.

So it is with some relief that Peorians ought to view the Peoria Police Department's change in policy regarding its release of police reports in which minors are involved. Since 2000, the department had used its interpretation of Illinois' Juvenile Court Act as a justification to withhold not just the names of young victims and perpetrators, but any information about the alleged crime. Now the police chief promises the department will be more forthcoming.

The Journal Star had challenged the city's position, not just because we believed it to be illegal - a view supported by the Illinois Attorney General's Office - but because it defied common sense, as well as the department's mission to help protect the public. We don't have to look far to see how this policy of silence arguably backfired, or how it can potentially protect an alleged criminal and prolong a crime spree.

Indeed, over 13 months starting in December 2006, 21-year-old Monterius Hinkle allegedly committed five sexual assaults of girls ranging from ages 12 to 16. Yet as far as most Peorians were concerned, those assaults hadn't happened. Parents in the affected neighborhoods kept sending their kids out into the neighborhoods where Hinkle lurked, unaware of the danger they posed.

It took the mother of a victim calling this newspaper to inquire why nothing had been published, why others weren't being alerted, before the legal gears really began to turn on apprehending Hinkle and indicting him. Peoria County State's Attorney Kevin Lyons credited media coverage with informing and convincing critical witnesses to come forward. Would Hinkle have been off the streets earlier if that had happened sooner? Would there have been fewer victims?

Still, the city held to its position. It wasn't until last week, after a couple of attacks on teen girls near Peoria High School in mid-March prompted the relative of one to again call the Journal Star, that city officials relented.

Look, we appreciate that the media's job and law enforcement's job sometimes conflict. No doubt some cops view dealing with the press as a hassle. Police should not release so much information that they jeopardize a case. But many communities figured out long ago that the two can be of mutual assistance. "America's Most Wanted" has been on TV for 20 years, with the related capture of nearly 1,000 fugitives to show for it, plus the rescue of 59 missing persons. Press coverage was instrumental in helping to bring the D.C. sniper killings to an end in 2002. Absolutely, public cooperation can help police do their jobs better.

Communication is key. Communication between the Peoria Police Department, Peoria County Sheriff's Department and the public recently was recognized as a factor in the arrest and indictment of James Fuller for an alleged string of rapes in 2006. Where communication is iffy or non-existent, public safety suffers.

Information usually beats ignorance. On that, as well as a safer community, police and press ought to be on the same page. Let's hope we are, from now on, in Peoria.

Peoria Journal Star