Sometimes, law enforcers reveal nearly everything they know when a high-profile murder happens, as was the case when a Pensacola, Fla., couple known for adopting disabled children was slain this summer. And sometimes they reveal almost nothing, as in the mass murder this week at Brunswick, Ga., mobile-home park. Law enforcement experts say police balance what the public needs to know against the dangers of tipping off a suspect and damaging the investigation and prosecution, reports USA Today.
“Need to know is the standard – if there’s information that will allow the public to take steps to protect themselves in an unsolved homicide with a suspect on the loose,” says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. Police withhold information strategically to weed out false confessions or determine if a suspect knows something about a crime that isn’t public, Fox says. Police avoid releasing vague information, such as an incomplete suspect description, because it generates dead-end tips, he says. Incorrect information made public early in an investigation can throw a case off course, Fox says. When Washington, D.C.- area police were chasing a sniper in 2002, they said they were looking for a white van, he notes. Later, the police learned the suspects drove a blue sedan.