It’s been more than a month since a gunman walked into the Killeen Mall during the busy Christmas rush and opened fire in an athletic apparel store, wounding a man working there.
The gunman fled the scene, the victim was airlifted to a Temple hospital, and Killeen police secured the scene — after which Chief Charles Kimble held a news conference to provide the latest details on the incident.
That was Dec.7.
Since then, with the exception of a few updates in the first days following the incident that the shooting victim was “stable,” few new details had been released until now — despite a steady stream of questions from the Herald about the victim’s condition and status of the investigation.
More importantly, police didn’t characterize the shooting as a targeted attack — which it appeared to be, given the fact that the gunman apparently walked through a sizable portion of the mall to reach the store where the attack took place, walked to the back of the store and shot the worker multiple times before leaving. He remains at-large.
On Wednesday, for the first time, Kimble acknowledged during an interview with a Herald staff writer that police believe the shooting victim was targeted. That interview appears in today’s Herald.
Still, in the days and weeks since the shooting, the public had a right to know whether the gunman was viewed as a further threat to the community. The KPD’s decision to say nothing about the nature of the attack — which Kimble said was partly due to the large number of tips KPD had to investigate — did little to calm the public’s fears in the month since the incident.
Further, police offered little information about the shooting victim. The Herald persistently inquired about the extent of his injuries and whether he remained hospitalized. During last week’s interview, Kimble divulged that the victim had been released from the hospital a week after the shooting.
For those who were concerned with the victim’s prognosis, that would have been good information to release at the time of his discharge.
Another gun-related incident that occurred last week in southwest Killeen further illustrated the need for immediate information.
Following a traffic stop on Tuesday, police engaged an armed suspect in a foot chase. A woman in the area told the Herald she heard a single gunshot. The firing of a weapon, by an officer, was also mentioned in police radio traffic.
Despite being pressed by the Herald to confirm that a shot was fired, police provided no response to that question Tuesday.
The following day, KPD issued a news release saying an officer’s gun had discharged when a fleeing armed suspect had kicked the officer’s hand as the suspect was attempting to scale a fence.
The KPD spokeswoman explained that the police wanted to make sure they had the facts straight surrounding the incident rather than putting out incorrect information.
Certainly, the police are correct to focus on accuracy when reporting the discharge of a police officer’s weapon. As KPD noted in its release, this is a serious matter.
However, police also must be cognizant that the incident took place in a residential area, and multiple residents no doubt heard the shot. KPD should have acknowledged soon after the incident that a weapon was discharged, and that police were investigating the circumstances. Police could have released a detailed explanation later, as they did.
Police departments across the country traditionally have embraced the phrase “to serve and protect.”
Part of law enforcement’s service to the public is providing timely information regarding issues of public safety.
Killeen residents had a right to know before now whether police had reason to believe the mall gunman poses any further threat to the public.
Southwest Killeen residents also deserved to know quickly last week that the gunshot they may have heard was likely accidental and not associated with any gun-related violence in the area.
More often than not, police will say that they can’t release information on a given crime because it is an active investigation.
Certainly, police are justified in withholding information that would jeopardize an investigation or compromise witnesses’ identifies. It’s understandable that police wouldn’t want to provide too much information about possible leads in a case or note that they had identified suspects. Obviously, this kind of release of information could potentially tip off a suspect, reducing the likelihood of an arrest.
The public — and most media sources — understand that much of the work police put into solving a case goes on behind the scenes, and that the bulk of their findings can’t be shared publicly until after an arrest has been made.
Still, police have an obligation to quickly get the basic information out to the public following a crime — especially if a gunman remains at-large.
If an armed robbery or shooting takes place, residents shouldn’t have to wait until the following day — or even longer — to find out about it.
And residents shouldn’t have to go to the police department’s Facebook page to learn of a serious incident. For people who don’t know to check Facebook, or for those without internet access, this method of disseminating information is both inequitable and inefficient.
KPD must come to appreciate that what works best for the department may not always work well for the public, and adjust accordingly.
A perfect example is the pair of safety seminars the department held for local businesses in the wake of last month’s mall shooting. The seminars provided valuable information about how businesses could protect themselves from crime, yet they were poorly attended — possibly because they were offered at the KPD headquarters in far south Killeen.
Had the seminars been offered at the Killeen Civic and Conference Center, which KPD can use free of charge, the programs might have been better attended.
Ultimately, providing useful information in a timely manner and across a variety of platforms benefits KPD and the public.
As residents come to depend on frequent updates and frank assessments by the police department, the level of trust is likely to rise accordingly.
The Killeen Police Department is to be commended for talking to the Herald last week, with Chief Kimble answering questions surrounding the mall shooting.
That kind of forthcoming response is exactly what both the media and public should be able to expect — and appreciate.
But just as news media outlets such as the Herald can always improve on reporting the news, local police departments can always do a better job of providing the necessary information.
That means returning phone calls and emails in a reasonable time frame whenever there is an inquiry — even if there is nothing immediate to report.
That means sending news releases and media alerts via email whenever the situation warrants, rather than expect media outlets to monitor Facebook at all times.
That also means assigning a dedicated KPD public information officer to cover nights, weekends and holidays, so that vital information can be released to the media and public quickly, no matter when a crime or crisis occurs.
It also means frequent, frank discussions between police administration and media representatives to ensure that cooperation between the parties continues to evolve and improve.
Together, we must do better in meeting the need for important information in our community.
Public safety — and the public’s trust — depend on it.