Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Police slow in Gibson disclosure?

Hesitation can be dangerous in sensitive cases

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Winnipeg police Chief Devon Clunis and his fellow Canadian chiefs of police came through looking progressive and persuasive at their annual conference this week in Winnipeg, what with their calls for issuing tickets for simple pot possession and urging better care for the mentally ill.

But the police chiefs missed an opportunity to be even more out front on another issue they actually control.

The theme of the conference was supposed to be communications.

Specifically, social-media trends and their use by police in their private lives as investigative tools. There was no mention of the more fundamental issue of how police communicate with the news media and hence the public -- that should have been on the agenda.

Police officers are part of organizations that guard secrets and journalists are about uncovering secrets that publicly responsible organizations such as police services would rather you not know about.

Which brings me to my colleague, Mike McIntryre, and his coverage of the deaths last month of Lisa Gibson and her two young children. On July 24 at 12:54 p.m. -- about five hours after what was reportedly a 911 call from the Gibsons' Westwood home -- a Winnipeg police public information officer emailed a news release that reported "emergency personnel were dispatched to a check the well-being incident" at the Gibson home at 8 a.m.

Then the news release said this: "Responding personnel located two young children within the residence. Both were transported to the hospital in critical condition and have since succumbed to their injuries... "

Three days later, police recovered the body of the missing mother from the Red River.

In retrospect, what's most revealing about the news release are these words:

"Responding personnel located two young children within the residence."

During the days that followed, some news reports would interpret "responding personnel" to mean the male and female officers who first responded to the call were the ones who found two-year-old Anna and three-month-old Nicholas in the bathtub.

But just over two weeks later, McIntyre would write a story that suggested police had misled the media and the public about who found the children in the bathtub.

Police sources had told McIntyre what the public affairs unit hadn't disclosed. It was the grandmother who found the children in the bathtub, and, according to McIntyre, "as much as 30 minutes after police first arrived."

"And that," McIntyre wrote, "has led to yet another in a long line of 'what-if' questions being asked in this tragic case: What if they had been found sooner? Could they have been saved?"

One can see why the police might be less than clear about what happened that morning.

McIntyre contacted the police information unit before the story asking for comment and for a timeline of when the 911 call was placed, when police arrived at the home, what time the children were discovered and when paramedics arrived. Police declined to comment. Other than to explain why they wouldn't. A public information officer alluded to the possibility an inquest could be called.

Chief Clunis repeated the police line during a later phone interview. When I challenged the chief on that, he characterized himself as open and transparent and vowed to speak with me when the time was appropriate.

Clunis may have other reasons for not being open and transparent right now, but he and his organization appear to be hiding behind a legal wall of their own. A law professor with extensive background in government told me there is no legal reason why police couldn't share the timeline information and what the responding officers' role was at the scene.

But what if McIntyre hadn't written the story, and what if there was no inquest? I asked Chief Clunis whether he would have spoken with me about his officers' involvement in the discovery of the children if McIntyre hadn't written about it.

Clunis didn't answer directly.

The Winnipeg police chief may want to see himself as open and transparent, but the organization he is responsible for leading wasn't in the Gibson case. As for how Chief Clunis handled the Gibson case, I came across some expert advice he might want to remember.

Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary under George W. Bush, said this month during a National Press Club debate on the growing conflict between reporters who want to know the truth and so-called public information officers who don't want them to know: "Everyone will tell you, every professional will tell you, put out any bad news on your own terms," Fratto said. "Get it out. Push it out. Tell your story."

Then, in a statement that suggests why Devon Clunis didn't "get it out," Fratto said this: "But the courage to do that is really... lacking."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2013 0

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