Media Self-Policing As Slain Officer’s Legacy

We’ve all had it happen in our communities, especially urban ones. A heretofore anonymous cop, otherwise taken for granted, is gunned down and a whole community is traumatized. In the media aftermath, we’re graphically reminded that a police officer’s life is a precarious one. Ask their wives. And their widows.

The other day we lost another one here in Tampa when a cornered bank robber shot Officer Lois Marrero three times in the neck and face. She never had a chance. The gunman then took a hostage in a nearby apartment, which was quickly surrounded by a SWAT team and a swarm of media. The killer eventually offed himself after hearing on TV that his victim had died. Fortunately the hostage escaped unscathed physically.

Tampa, unfortunately, has had more than its share of such murders. Three years ago the nation recoiled in horror when a piece of human flotsam named Hank Earl Carr, aided by a hidden handcuff key, shot two Tampa detectives at point blank range in a squad car. He later gunned down a Florida Highway Patrol officer before taking a hostage and then his own life.

During the hostage standoff, a Tampa Bay radio station managed to phone through to Carr. Outraged police had to, in effect, wait their turn before getting their negotiator’s call through. The result was a non-binding agreement between police and local media to “voluntarily restrict live coverage” in such circumstances.

This week’s death of Officer Marrero left a family shattered, a police force in mourning and a community aggrieved. She was, as we’ve come to realize, much more than badge number 327. She was one of us, only more giving, less fortunate — and much braver. Her tragic murder appropriately prompted memorials and eulogies to a heroic, fallen officer who had faithfully and courageously served her community — on and off the job — for two decades.

Her legacy is that selfless service for those 20 years. Gratitude, honor and tragedy will be synonymous with her memory.

And yet her legacy can also transcend her own considerable community contributions and the heavy-hearted precedent of being the first TPD female killed in the line of duty. This can happen if we reflect on more than Officer Marrero’s tragic slaying.

We can ask why a compact, semi-automatic submachine gun — the murder weapon — doesn’t even require a permit, but that’s part of another battle.

But we can also ask the electronic media — whose charge is to inform, especially where there’s a public safety issue — to do an even better job of policing itself on live coverage of scenarios such as hostage-taking homicides. Not all TV stations acquitted themselves well. The local ABC affiliate, for example, aired much of the action live and unconscionably released Officer Marrero’s identity before her family was notified. Her killer found out before her parents.

The nature of television, of course, is immediacy. And live video from a crime scene, one where human drama continues to unfold, is as compelling as TV ever gets. But “officer down” should always be more than a media all call, especially when other lives hang in the balance.

Yes, there is a non-binding agreement between the local media and law enforcement to restrict live coverage of volatile and fluid situations such as those involving hostages and would-be suicide cases. It asks the media not to show — or even describe — locations or actions during tactical operations. But that still permits wiggle room and allows for less-than-prudent decisions made in the heat of coverage. That, of course, cannot be avoided — absent the legislating of responsibility or the morphing into a police state.

But here’s a suggestion: Affix somewhere a copy of the public’s “Marrero Rights” on every news set, satellite van and helicopter. It would read:

*”Never confuse ‘just doing my job’ with doing the right thing.

*Never leave home, let alone the station, without your empathy.

*If I were a hostage, what would I most not want my captors to hear and see on TV?

*Sometimes less is more appropriate.

*In a breaking-news crisis, first priority is everyone’s safety — not the competition.

*Take the news seriously, but not yourself. However important our role in a free society, the public could care less who’s actually informing them.”

No, we haven’t seen the last officer, male or female, tragically fall in the line of duty. That danger is ever present and a variable we ultimately cannot control.

However, there is a variable we should be able to control. Media must never provide counterproductive, possibly life-threatening information — including the status of any wounded officers — to (cop-killing,) hostage-taking criminals with access to a TV set. But if a ratings-challenged station feels compelled to choose otherwise, please don’t do it under the self-serving guise of informing a public that would surely want to wait on the details given the circumstances — and trade-offs.

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