At the very least, the timing was unfortunate.
Less than an hour after an armed robbery suspect was shot and killed by police at a busy Killeen shopping center, the city sent out a news release touting the city’s declining crime rate.
To be fair, it’s unlikely the city’s Public Information office was aware of the robbery at the time it sent out the release, but the way the positive news was trumpeted was somewhat misleading.
First of all, the city release referred to a “national study” that showed that between 2010 and 2015, Killeen ranked 12th among 96 cities across the country in the reduction of crime of more than 8 percent. In fact, Killeen beat out 20 other Texas cities in this area, so that is definitely a stat worth mentioning.
However, the author of the crime stats report was an obscure internet website — FindAHome.com. That’s hardly the Rand Corporation. In fact, some of the website’s other “studies” included rankings on which states led the nation in divorces and which cities had the most McDonald’s restaurants.
In other words, this was little more than data compilation designed to get cities and media outlets to click on the site and publicize its contents.
And while a five-year trend of declining crime numbers is positive news and worth sharing with the city’s residents, the news release virtually screams for context.
Monday’s armed robbery was the second one this year that involved a fatal shooting. In addition, the city has recorded nine homicides so far in 2017 — three times the number at this time last year.
A recently posted city brochure announcing the search for a new police chief seems to grasp the current reality, noting, “City management and members of the community are concerned about recent increases in crime. The City Manager will expect the Police Chief to quickly become familiar with all areas of the city and the impacts of these higher levels of criminal activity.”
So were crime levels down for the period of 2010 to 2015? Legitimate statistics tell us they were. But are residents rightfully concerned with the recent spike in violent crime? You bet they are.
Certainly, it’s not unusual for chambers of commerce or public information officials to put a positive spin on facts. That just goes with the territory.
But omitting historical background or pertinent context gives the impression that city officials are either deliberately ignoring the facts or are tone-deaf to the residents’ concerns.
Last month, Executive Director of Public Information Hilary Shine embellished the findings of the city’s external auditor, Austin-based Weaver LLC, in the firm’s annual audit report.
Weaver issued a “clean” opinion in its audit, but in a city-produced video, Shine said “an independent audit firm performed a complete review of the annual books and found absolutely no deficiencies or material weaknesses.” She went on: “They offered a clean opinion, which is the highest level of assurance possible that your tax dollars are being properly managed by city staff.”
A Weaver representative told the council he could not offer assurances about the city’s financial health, since that was beyond the scope of the audit that was conducted.
Further, Weaver also issued a “clean” opinion last year, just a few months before the city’s interim city manager told the City Council that they were facing an $8 million budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year. As a result of the contentious budget process that followed, residents demanded a more intensive audit of the city’s finances, and the council agreed to one.
Yet, that impending investigation was never mentioned in Shine’s comments about the latest Weaver audit, despite the fact that the City Council had just approved funding for it the previous day.
This was more than just an omission of fact. Shine’s statement seemed to imply the results of the narrowly focused Weaver audit invalidated the need for the larger investigation.
Move along, folks. Nothing to see here. Everything is fine.
Just as important as context in public information is timely access to it — another area where Killeen often falls short.
Three weeks ago, the Herald ran into a roadblock in trying to access campaign finance reports for candidates in Killeen’s municipal election.
On the day these reports were due from the candidates, the city repeatedly delayed their release, delaying the Herald’s story on the filings — and the public’s access to it.
These reports detail where candidates get their campaign money and how much they spend — crucial information for voters trying to make informed decisions.
Ultimately, public information offices must do what their name implies: make information public.
Actually, the city has made some significant strides in this area.
The financial transparency portal on the city’s website is a major step forward in helping residents understand the city’s budget workings and financial dealings.
The online City Insight newsletter is also helpful in providing information.
Good News Killeen, the video production highlighting positive developments in the city, is a valuable endeavor as well. But the fact it was launched to counter what some city officials perceived as negative media reporting is troubling.
Releasing public information should be about more than just spin.
A recent presentation by City Manager Ron Olson showed that the Public Information office was the only department that increased in the number of employees per capita in the last 10 years — up to six people. Given the staff size, the office should give the public more than road closure and boil water notices, along with city event or program announcements.
Moving forward, the city manager and council should examine ways to streamline the department and review its function. A commitment to transparency and open communication with the public and media should be top priorities.
Certainly, a public information office can play an important role — disseminating news, providing access to documents and giving contextual background as needed.
But public information officials cross the line when they decide what the residents and media need to know — and what they don’t.