Police fail to shed light on tragedy

Two contradictory images of the same man compete in the public mind.

Justin Ross Harris is charged with committing the unspeakable crime of murdering his child — the unavoidable conclusion of the sparse hints and innuendo provided by the Cobb County police.

Then there’s the Facebook Harris — at least there was, before his pages were removed after his 22-month-old son, Cooper, died in the heat of the family SUV. The Facebook pages were arresting in their wholesome familiarity: Photos of a young couple doting on their beautiful baby boy. Alabama football and Braves baseball. Updates on awful Atlanta traffic. The World Cup. These could be the musings of the nieces and nephews I follow with babies the same age as Cooper.

America has been riven by the struggle to reconcile these images. How can such rich ordinariness coexist with the most heinous of all crimes?

It can’t.

On Thursday night, the talking heads spent most of their time on Anderson Cooper shouting at one another. Their recommendations of just outcomes for Harris ranged from hugs to the death penalty. They sprinkled their passionate debate with frequent declarations of deep ignorance of what really happened.

On social media, the debate has been no less spirited or informed. While Harris was being condemned across social media, the change.org website gathered more than 11,000 signatures on a petition demanding that police drop the murder charges.

Frankly, a public debate so steeped in ignorance has succeeded only in hardening public opinion against Harris. While I am as bereft of the facts as anybody else, I do fear that no matter what happens, Harris will never escape the condemnation that has already settled in so many minds.

The information void deepened and filled with wanton speculation because Cobb police have been so amazingly unwilling to share even the basics. In fact, Cobb police have made clear little more than that they believe their murder charges are justified. Trust them. The public shouldn’t worry its pretty little head over the facts.

Cobb investigators no doubt are working very hard to make their case. No one wants to undermine their investigation, but should they refuse to give the most basic of accounts just because they believe they can? Shouldn’t they be disclosing all that they can instead of as little as they can?

While no one wants the police to be irresponsible, it seems generally helpful in a free society that police are transparent as they can.

For a contrast, look at the way Gwinnett County police handled the arrest of of Recardo Wimbush Sr., the former Georgia Tech football star, and his wife on charges of cruelty to children. Gwinnett police immediately provided a useful narrative allowing a basic understanding of what happened. Whatever public discussion ensues will at least have the benefit of a clear set of official facts. And a broader understanding of what the police know and are thinking would even allow the public to challenge investigators’ assumptions and perhaps provide more information.

In the same edition of our newspaper, we reported that more than a week after Harris’ arrest, we know only what we have pieced together — largely from a tersely written arrest warrant. We still don’t know why Harris was charged so quickly and so severely, with felony murder. We don’t know why police reduced a secondary charge from first-degree cruelty to children to second-degree cruelty.

An advocate for educating the public on the dangers of leaving kids in cars is frustrated by the trickle. “I wish the police would come out and say what they have,” Janette Fennell, president and founder of Kids and Cars, told AJC reporter Christian Boone.

I get that the police priority is getting its case right. I understand that the press is annoying and not always helpful. But surely the Cobb police can do better than the drip, drip, drip of suggestive assertions.

At a much-awaited news conference Wednesday — a week after Cooper’s death — Officer Mike Bowman told us nothing. “Let us do our job,” Bowman told the press. “Let us get the information out there. Don’t be so quick to judge.”

But how could we not be too quick to judge? Bowman asked for patience, yet showed such little regard for the public.

I emailed Bowman Thursday night asking if he could explain the department’s miserly approach to the facts.

Bowman called me Friday and reiterated that the public must be patient. He said his department will release more details when appropriate. He also saw no urgency because there is no immediate threat to public safety.

“There are ‘need-to-know’ cases, and there are ‘want-to-know’ cases,” he explained. “This is a ‘want-to-know’ case.”

So, we’re supposed to be content with the police department’s having exclusive dominion over what we need to know?

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