The Magazine

Two Cheers for Leaks

The crime-solving tactic police hate.

Nov 25, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 11 • By ELI LEHRER
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AROUND 1:00 A.M. on Thursday, October 24, with the manhunt for the Beltway sniper entering its third week, trucker Ronald Lanz--his radio tuned to the "Truckin' Bozo" network--spotted a blue 1990 Chevy Caprice at a rest stop along I-70, a few miles from the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. He saw the license plate he had heard about over the radio--New Jersey tag NDA-21Z--and punched 9-1-1 on his mobile phone. Working with another big-rig driver, he blocked the rest stop's exits. Around 3:00 A.M. heavily armed SWAT teams converged on the car and apprehended Beltway sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo.

From tip to capture, the alleged snipers' apprehension was a textbook law enforcement operation and a sterling example of citizen-police cooperation--except for one thing: The police had never released the license plate number that led to the suspects. Instead, reporters had overheard the number on police radios, and, after waiting for several hours, had released it without the consent of the police.

For the most part, police hate leaks, even those that turn out to help them solve crimes. When the Washington Post and the capital area's Newschannel 8 reported that the sniper had left a tarot card at the scene of one shooting, a furious Montgomery County police chief Charles Moose sarcastically suggested that the media take over the investigation. Police departments' dislike of leaks has a strong basis in fact: Uncontrolled leaks of every hunch the police follow don't help solve crimes. Managed correctly, however, openness and even leaks can assist law enforcement. Good police work, in the end, relies on both openness and secrecy, gauged to the circumstances of each case.

By and large, police departments have become much more open in recent years, and sharing information with the public has helped crack cases big and small. Although the over-hyped Amber Alert system for assisting kidnap victims bears a significant risk of creating false alarms, its underlying philosophy--get out as much information as quickly as possible--is enormously beneficial.

Since kidnappers tend to demand secrecy, police rarely publicized kidnappings before the early 1990s even though leaks rarely led to additional harm to victims. Once it became standard practice to initiate mass publicity, kidnappings by strangers (never common to begin with) fell by more than 50 percent. Two teenage girls kidnapped last August from a lovers' lane in Southern California almost certainly would have died at their kidnappers' hands were it not for an all-out media blitz about the case.

The FBI, likewise, caught Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski when the Washington Post published his rambling manifesto and his brother turned him in. Police captured serial child predator Alejandro Avila--who allegedly kidnapped, raped, and murdered 5-year-old Samantha Runnion--after Orange County sheriff Michael Carona took the unprecedented step of briefing the public on the case's details last summer.

In fact, strategically leaked information often aids an investigation more than officially controlled news stories. "When you release something [officially], it's out there and anyone who you're trying to get knows about it," says Edward Davis, the police superintendent in Lowell, Massachusetts. "You can leak, and then the public has the information, but the person you're trying to get doesn't have a clear sense of what you're doing with it."

Many of America's most effective police departments opened their doors wide during the 1990s and saw enormous crime drops partly as a result. In Chicago, where crime continues to decline even as it rises in many other large cities, an overly bureaucratic but effective strategy called CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) emphasizes two-way communication with the public. Police priorities are developed partly from open meetings at the neighborhood level. And information about law-enforcement strategies is made available to citizens. A two-year-old website even lets residents see up-to-the-minute crime figures for their neighborhoods.

Anaheim, California--which during the 1990s enjoyed the largest crime reductions of any of America's 50 largest cities--followed a similar policy of openness. "Releasing as much information as possible makes everyone part of the posse. It's almost a throwback to the Old West," argues Joe Vargas, a lieutenant with the Anaheim police who was one of the west coast's most respected public information officers before his promotion. "Getting people involved works."