POLICE CHIEF Maurice J. Cullinane, on whom this city depends in tense situations involving hostage-takers or barricaded gun-wielders, is understandably concerned about how members of the news media behave when covering such incidents. The chief and other officials in his department have complained periodically that reporters, photographers and television camera crews have complicated the job of the police and have increased physical dangers for the officers in many instances. And unfortunately, Chief Cullinance can cite cases.
He now proposes that his department and the news media (whatever that term actually includes, anyway) enter into some sort of "mutual agreement" on procedures to be followed during such incidents. These proposals range from permitting reporters and photographers selected from a pool to attend portions of police-terroist negotiations to having the news media agree not to initiate telephone calls to hostage-takers.
In addition, if reporters were to receive a call from a hostage-taker, under these proposals they would "immediately notify the police department and request guidance on how the call should be handled." And "no such conversation between the gunman and a correspondent will be broadcast or published without first conferring with the police negotiator for advice," the draft proposals state. Other provisions would bar any photo "closeups of the actual windows where police officers may be stationed for observation purposes" and "no movement of police officers" would be reported "live".
Most residents surely would agree with the thinking behind these proposals, which were drawn up in an attempt to eliminate practices that might endanger lives, destroy delicate negotiations or thwart certain police plans and movements. Moreover, as Leonard Downie Jr., assistant managing editor for metropolitan news at this newspaper, said in response to the chief's proposals: "We do have certain internal standards. . . . The most important is that we try to do nothing that would endanger any lives. As a result, we have frequently withheld information . . . such as police plans and the names of hostages until the incident was over. . . . We have sometimes consulted with the authorities, but we always want to reserve the right to make the final decision ourselves and not have our hands tied by the police."
In any event, these sorts of decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, not by some set of formalized do's and don'ts that could at once hamper the legitimate flow of information to the public and cause still other police problems. The police, after all, already have considerable authority to control these situations fairly effectively. For example, the police can - and do - set limits on the movements of reporters, photographers and broadcast crews.
The best safeguard, in our view, is a regular and complete sharing of police information, coupled with whatever straightforward requests for restrictions the police may feel necessary at a particular time. Otherwise, there is an increased likelihood of dangerous misinformation - reports that could prove far more damaging than anything said or done with full knowledge of a situation.
To this we would add that under Chief Cullinane's directions, the department's efforts to work with the news media have, in general, been commendable. This shared understanding of the functions of both groups is crucial to any sensitive handling of tense situations, we believe - and should not be reduced to a formal "pact" by which only certain media organizations might or might not abide.