Hardly anyone ate the donuts.
Three heaping plates of the sugary confections sat on a table at the back of the room, as about two dozen high-ranking members of the Madison police department -- including Chief Noble Wray, his two assistant chiefs and several captains -- held a two-hour rap session this morning at Channel 3 with about two dozen representatives of the Madison media.
The media, I suspect, didn't go for the donuts because most of us could stand to lose weight. (Of course, had no one been watching, we'd have wolfed them down like, well, wolves. That's one reason most of us could stand to lose weight.)
The cops, I truly believe, just didn't want to be seen by media reps eating donuts, like Chief Wiggum. One of the first cops to arrive even made a joke to this effect, eliciting a promise from Ch. 3 news director Tom Bier, who arranged the meeting, that there would be no photos taken of police eating donuts. He got his assurance, and still left the donuts alone.
Wray, in his introductory remarks, said the goal of the meeting was "to understand each other from each other's perspective." Good luck with that.
He began by talking about perceptions of crime, and especially the notion that it's getting worse in Madison. He stressed that it wasn't just the media and public who felt this way: "If I would ask the average beat cop, I think they would say it's gotten worse." But, he added, "Worse compared to what?"
Wray also raised the issue of changes in the community that affect perceptions of crime, as evidenced by calls the MPD to report, for instance, that "Certain people of color are hanging out on the front porch." And he said the Internet and 24/7 local news cycles have dramatically increased the extent to which his department is fielding inquiries from reporters.
Almost immediately, a member of the media -- okay, it was me -- made clear that the issue most in need of discussion was the MPD's inexplicable secrecy regarding certain recent homicide investigations. Wray and various members of his department gamely defended their decisions to keep things under wraps.
They said there was a need to suppress details to keep people from making false confessions or, alternately, to trip up people who reveal things only the killer would know.
Asst. Chief John Davenport added that police cannot publicly speculate about things they're not sure of: "We have to be in a position where it is absolutely confirmed as fact."
Wray said there was "a balancing act" between the MPD's need to protect an investigation and the public's right to know. Regarding the murder of UW student Brittany Zimmermann, he ultimately agreed, over some internal opposition, to reveal that her residence had been broken into -- information important for public safety.
Glen Gardner of WTDY asked whether there was less of a sense of trust between police and reporters than in times past. Several officers in attendance agreed there was some truth to this. Information seems to spread quickly and more surely these days; cops don't feel they can count on reporters to exercise what they -- the police -- feel is reasonable discretion.
"The relationships aren't there," admitted Capt. Jay Lengfeld.
Lt. Joe Balles followed by noting that it's easier for police to trust reporters if they sense they are doing an in-depth story (like the sort Isthmus often does, which he neglected to say), not a wham, bam, thank you man. He urged media managers to allow reporters to do this kind of story, without an imposing deadline. Wray asked if this was a problem and several reporters agreed they are under more pressure than ever to produce at a high volume.
WIBA's Robin Colbert argued that efforts to keep information secret -- like the fact the a 911 call was made from Zimmermann's cell phone before she died -- tend to backfire. Wray readily agreed. He said he promptly notified "my boss" -- Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, of the call. He thought it was a mistake that this was not made public.
"I believe the community should have been made aware of that [call] early on," he said.
It was throwing pieces of mackerel to sharks.
"Should the mayor have made that public?" demanded one reporter.
"That's probably a question you should ask him," replied Wray.
"I'm asking you," the reporter said.
Wray declined to answer.
With this hint of antagonism in the room, some of the police tried to turn it back on the media. Capt. Mary Schauf argued that each media revelation generates "an avalanche of tips," which police then had to prioritize and pursue. She made it sound like this was a bad thing -- getting information, even though, as Wray had said earlier, most crimes are solved with help from the public.
Schauf also pointed to what she felt was blameworthy behavior on the part of the press -- specifically, that "We had media contacting the family members [of murder victims] and encouraging them to be more vocal, [saying] that would put pressure on the police."
Then there was the suggestion that one reason for secrecy was to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. Often, the police said, they are under pressure from the DA's office to keep things under wraps, so as not to jeopardize a prosecution.
I asked why this was a concern in a case like the murder of Joel Marino. The police have Adam Peterson's DNA on the murder weapon. They have eyewitness identifications. They have him on tape admitting to the crime. "This guy is not going to pull an O.J.," I said. "You've got him dead to rights."
The police, including Davenport, responded by saying that they needed to protect the due-process rights of criminal defendants. It was a good argument, but a complicated one. Police won't talk about a case so as not to jeopardize a prosecution; they also won't talk if doing so is unfair to the person being prosecuted.
Both positions may be true, and valid, even if they are somewhat contradictory. It's the kind of thing reporters might not think of.
Which is why meetings like this are a good idea.
Next time, though, maybe the organizers shouldn't order quite so many donuts.