Reporters with this newspaper and with news organizations throughout central New York worked feverishly on Thursday morning to piece together a troubling breaking story.
A couple of reverse 911 calls made overnight to a few hundred residents in Skaneateles and in Cayuga County near the county line had directed people to lock their doors because a fugitive was on the loose in the area. Stories emerged late Thursday morning telling part of the story, but every CNY law enforcement agency had the same message for reporters' inquiries: Call the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision press office in Albany. That's what they were told to say by the state's parole officials who were leading the search.
We all made those phone calls and sent those emails. And we all waited — as social media was exploding with all sorts of panicked rumors. Finally, at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, about 18 hours after convicted rapist Christopher Block had removed a parole tracking bracelet and went into hiding, DOCCS put out a statement that filled in the blanks and made clear this man was dangerous.
Thanks to some good fortune and the diligent and smart work of area law enforcement, Block was found Friday morning near Skaneateles Country Club, and it appears he did not have contact with people while he was on the run. As central New Yorkers know from the horrific David Renz case in 2013, when Renz removed a federal monitoring bracelet and raped a 10-year-old girl in Clay and killed the girl's mother, the situation last week was a serious public threat.
And no matter what carefully crafted damage-control statements from DOCCS headquarters say, the law enforcement community on the ground were absolutely correct to criticize the 18-hour general public notice delay. In a statement put out Friday, a DOCCS spokesman said they waited "so it did not cause panic or unduly compromise the early stages of the search and force the absconder to go deeper into hiding."
Perhaps that's true for the first few hours of such a search, but once semi-vague reverse 911 calls start to go out, the panic prevention strategy is moot. And certainly by daylight the next day, the need to let the broader public know that there's a dangerous man on the loose was paramount.
It's clear from the tone of the DOCCS justification statement that they will not acknowledge their missteps. That's typical when you get politically driven PR officials involved in these situations.
Our hope, though, is that local law enforcement leaders can work with DOCCS officials on the ground in central New York to debrief this case and establish a more direct and effective communications protocol. A good starting point would be to empower the DOCCS leaders on the ground in central New York — the regional parole supervisor and the superintendents of correctional facilities when they have emergencies — to speak directly with the media and the public.
Filtering these kinds of cases through the Albany press office leads to delays, as well as limited and sometimes wrong or outdated information. We saw all of those problems last week, and we hope to not see them again.
The Citizen editorial board includes interim publisher Thomas Salvo, executive editor Jeremy Boyer and managing editor Mike Dowd.