OUR VIEW: Lack of alert after escape shows system is badly flawedWhy is it so difficult for law-enforcement agencies to understand that the public deserves to know when dangerous people are on the loose in our towns, lurking about our neighborhoods and homes? It doesn’t take long for state agencies to issue an alert when a confused senior citizen goes missing after a morning drive.
By: Editorial board, The Daily Republic
One day, Sept. 16, 2008, a man robbed a Mitchell bank and made his getaway through local neighborhoods. The next day, two men — said to be dangerous and in possession of methamphetamines and weapons — stole a car and went on the run through the countryside near Wagner.
Yet as these outlaws ran free, law-enforcement agencies — from the highest state level to local departments — failed to alert the public of these possible dangers. Following those incidents, The Daily Republic reported about the lack of alerts, and the Mitchell Department of Public Safety responded not long after with a public alert system through Nixle.com that has worked well for the department and Mitchell residents.
Evidently, though, there is still some work to be done elsewhere.
When two felons escaped last Wednesday from the Charles Mix County Jail, it took almost 19 hours before the public was officially alerted. One of the men, Eddie Antelope, has a history of escape and is considered dangerous.
At the end of each day, The Daily Republic makes routine phone calls to the offices of this region’s sheriffs, essentially asking if there is any news happening in our 16-county coverage area.
When the newspaper called Charles Mix County last Wednesday, the answer was “nothing I can tell you right now.” Many hours after that phone call, a statewide report was issued, alerting the public of the escape.
When asked later, Sheriff Randy Thaler blamed the long delay on a small staff that was busy following leads. Perhaps it’s vain of us to think that a well-informed media — newspapers, radio and TV stations, etc. — could have played a role in the search.
Either way, we wonder why it is so difficult for law-enforcement agencies to understand that the public deserves to know when dangerous people are on the loose in our towns, lurking about our neighborhoods and homes?
This is Sunshine Week, a national campaign during which newspapers push to promote government openness. Although the timing of the escape last week and this week’s campaign is a coincidence, we couldn’t have a better example of how South Dakota’s openness still needs work, despite improved efforts from the governor’s office and Legislature.
Perhaps it never will change. We suppose that in some cases, those in possession of vital information always will hold it close to their chest. In the case of law-enforcement agencies, we suspect escapes prompt no little embarrassment, and they make agencies look bad.
Meanwhile, it doesn’t take long for state agencies to issue an alert when a confused senior citizen goes missing after a morning drive.
The system is terribly flawed.
We were told the South Dakota Highway Patrol has the capability to issue a statewide alert about an escape, but it’s something that must be requested by the local agency that’s involved.
When Thaler opted to not alert the public, the Highway Patrol, which was involved in the search, should have taken control of public information. Imagine the repercussions facing all agencies involved if someone had been killed by an escapee and no public alert had been given.
Would a change in the system occur then, after it’s too late?
Thaler could have — should have — done better. Meanwhile, the Highway Patrol is a large, state-run agency that should know better.
If the Highway Patrol is limited by some rule in what it can do in these cases, the rule simply must be changed.
This is life and death, and the embarrassment of an escape should not trump the public’s right to know of potentially dangerous situations.