To begin, let’s just acknowledge how incredible Utah County’s police agencies are at keeping our cities peaceful and safe. We’re very grateful to the officers who make sacrifices and take risks for our community.
An important aspect of a police agency’s duty is to be transparent and communicate with the public it serves. We at the Herald have enjoyed many years of communication and good relationships with the various police departments throughout Utah County. This cooperation is vital for us to fulfill our duty of disseminating important information to the same public both we and police serve.
At times, that cooperation hits a rough patch. One such occasion happened recently: the officer-involved shooting and car chase in Orem on May 8. Communication on the matter from local police can be described as avoidant, and at certain times was downright nonexistent.
On May 8 at about 8 p.m., the Orem Police Department Facebook page posted: “Officers are on scene of an officer involved shooting which led to a vehicle chase that ended in the area of 1600 North near I-15. Further information will be released when it becomes available.”
That further information was not released until five days later when the police department held a press conference on Wednesday. Over those five days, the Daily Herald’s newsroom made several attempts to get in contact with someone from the Orem Police Department; no reason was given as to why the department was refusing to release information. The department put out a general statement to journalists on Monday confirming the incident but added a request not to call them about the matter, as they would hold a press conference later.
As the woman who drove the vehicle in the incident was arrested and taken to Utah County Jail, the Daily Herald was able to obtain a probable cause statement describing the episode through the Utah County Sheriff’s Office. That statement left out many important details.
It described the police trying to apprehend the suspect in a car chase, and it also described the suspect deliberately trying to run over an officer standing in the street. But it made no mention of an officer discharging their weapon, nor did it mention the passenger in the suspect’s truck who was hit by police fire, which was confirmed much later.
Consequently, we published a story based on the probable cause statement but were not able to confirm the connection between that incident and the shooting mentioned by the Orem Police Department’s Facebook post (though we could make a good guess).
A situation in which an officer-involved shooting occurs, but news agencies are unable to report on it until five days later, is unusual. Yes, we’re sure the situation is sensitive to the police, and that they wanted to make sure they communicated information about it carefully. But we’ve never seen a police agency refuse to make communication for several days after similar incidents in the past.
The withholding of information by the Orem Police Department produced a lot of unnecessary and avoidable suspicion. To our best judgment, it seems the police handled the actual shooting incident reasonably well given the details we now have. The camera footage of the incident makes it clear the officer who fired his weapon was being charged down by a truck at that moment.
So why all the secrecy? The police department inadvertently gave itself a black eye by not answering to the news media or the public with more immediacy.
We would venture to guess that one reason behind the department’s lack of communication lies in the fact that there is currently no official Orem Police public information officer. Because that duty has not been delegated, the department’s officers often drop the ball when news media reaches out.
Having a PIO at a police agency is highly important not just to communicate with news media but also so that the public has the information they need to judge the safety of their neighborhoods. We hope Orem Police gives that title and accompanying duties to an officer soon.