The news media should continuously and closely scrutinize law enforcement. The reason is obvious: Those folks with badges hold awesome powers, and when cops make allegations, they have the weight of the law behind them.
That's why it was alarming to us to be accused of lying and misrepresentation by two employees of the Broward County Sheriff's Office. We're even more alarmed now that we've come to realize they toss those allegations around as easily as they munch donuts.
Staff writer Sean Rowe was recently checking into a story about a string of armed robberies where four men in masks have been holding up saloons, pistol-whipping employees, and robbing patrons. Bartenders around Fort Lauderdale were feeling some genuine fear. Hmmm. The Barfly Bandits. Possible update here.
Rowe called the phone number of the Broward County Sheriff's detective who was working the case, left messages identifying our publication and his interest, and the detective subsequently called him back.
BSO robbery detective Steve Sudman refused to confirm rumors that half the gang has been rounded up in recent days, supposedly ratted out by a female wheelperson. "A couple people may be in custody, a couple people may not be," says Sudman. "I don't want to say, because I don't want to lure anybody into a false sense of security." We think the public can make up their own minds once presented with the facts. Sudman must not agree.
He added: "You're asking a lot of questions for someone working for a bar publication. Who'd you say you work for? ...New Times? What!? I don't want you guys quotin' nothin'! I'm done! Goodbye!" CLICK!
(New Times Broward*Palm Beach recently published a cover story criticizing Sudman's boss, Sheriff Ken Jenne, and his questionable associations with felons.)
Jenne's chief public-information manager Sheryl Stopnick called New Times with angry allegations about Rowe's misconduct.
"Your writer misrepresented himself to a detective and lied about who he worked for," Stopnick claimed. She then went on to lecture us about how BSO employees aren't allowed to talk to the media, all reporters simply must go through her.
Accusations of lying are serious. If they're true, action must be taken. If they're false, then that's slander on the part of the accuser.
Why would Rowe first identify himself when leaving messages as working for New Times and then lie about it? It doesn't take a detective to see this doesn't add up.
Stopnick was told to ask the secretary about the messages, and yes, she says Rowe identified himself to the secretary as being with this paper.
Could it be that the detective got confused, realized he broke the rules about talking to the media (New Times no less!), and then tried to cover himself by accusing Rowe of lying? Could it be that Stopnick jumped the gun and made accusations before checking out the allegation? More troubling: Is this standard procedure at the sheriff's office?
Following our lecture from Stopnick, we requested interviews with the detective and the secretary to try and get at the truth. We were told the request had to be made in letter form and passed on to BSO bosses who didn't respond before our deadline.
So that's why we don't always go through "public-information management officers" and why law enforcement deserves close examination.
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