An Open Letter From The Berwick Police Chief Over Media Coverage of Car Accident
Berwick, Maine Chief Of Police Timothy Towne wrote an open letter posted to the department's Facebook page detailing his disgust over how the media covered a car accident on Route 4 that killed four people.
The accident occurred on Saturday, June 9 and in his letter, Chief Towne details how reporters and camera crews were trying to get footage of the accident while people were still trapped in the vehicles as emergency responders worked to free them. He also notes that one of the emergency responders took photos of the accident scene and posted them to social media before any of the deceased where identified and families notified.
"Do I like the way that the incident on Route 4 was reported?" Chief Towne writes. "Do I like the way people felt it was necessary to capture horrible images? Do I like the way that the little boy on Route 4 was reduced to a leading story? I don't, I don't like it all! Sadly though, we all continue to perpetuate the way this happened. I just hope we all decide that it needs to change."
The letter was shared as an image on the Berwick Police Facebook page. We've transcribed it here, as written, for easier reading.
The chief raises an interesting topic for discussion. Has our hunger for news and tragedy made news organizations so eager to get the story and the pictures that they've lost respect for those involved? Have we lost that same respect for our need to know and see what happened?
Read the letter and let us know what you think in the comments below or on our Facebook page.
From the Berwick Police Department's Facebook page:
I don't normally post any commentary on our Facebook page merely to keep it more fact based with the goal of informing the public. On this occasion I am varying from that in order to express my concern as well as a modest portion of disgust.
On Saturday, June 9th we reported a horrific car accident on Route 4 in Berwick, Maine. In that accident four people lost their lives, one of which was a seven-year-old boy. The witness statements in the observations during the investigation on that day and the days since indicate that this car accident took place due to a motorist who was operating far beyond the legal acceptable norms. It took place due to a motorist's decision to operate in a manner that was reckless and obviously deadly. It wasn't the roads fault, it wasn't the traffic flows fault and it wasn't due to a lack of attention. This portion of Route 4 is very unique in the fact that it is patrolled by two police agencies. The accident took place due to a decision that was made by an operator of a motor vehicle. The only way that the accident could have been avoided was if the motorist had chosen to operate safely like the overwhelming majority of other motorists do.
A few things happened that day while we were actively investigating the cause of the accident that ended four lives in changed the lives of many other people forever. As a police chief, as a citizen and mererly as a member of society, I can stay silent. I have to express my opinion about the actions of the press and sadly about at least one member of emergency service that were on there on the scene. Pictures were posted prior to us being able to identify the deceased and make notifications to their families. Think for a moment what your reaction would be if you learned about an accident involving your loved one in this manner.
Initially, my disgust was focused directly towards the people who actually felt it necessary to take photographs of this accident and quickly post it onto social media complete with dialogue. Later, I learned that the first photographs posted came from an emergency service member who was at the scene, but obviously concerned more about photographs than maybe helping. I wonder what this person's true underlying motive is for being a first responder and for being at this scene?
Shortly thereafter, while continuing to investigate a scene where two adults and one little boy, all deceased and all remaining pinned inside of the wreckage, the media began to arrive. Once again, and in the same manner that I have unfortunately witnessed numerous times before, they began to jockey for positions in order to capture the most disturbing images as possible.
When this happens, it forces law enforcement an emergency service workers to divert our attention from the investigation so we can contend with the media. We move fire trucks, police cars, barricades, hang up tarps, sheets, blankets and even form a human shield so that we can give some dignity to the dead. While we do this, the media repositions themselves trying to see as much as they can in order to record it.
Saturday on one occasion, I noticed a camera operator from one of our local television stations who was several hundred yards away filming us. One of us walked up to them and asked that they stop recording, at least long enough for us to attempt to extricate the victims from the vehicle. The camera operator stated that they would not record while we did this. Not long afterward, guess what I witnessed, yes it was the same camera operator positioned behind their tripod and camera pointed back at us. Once again, I sent yet another officer back to them in order to ask for a few minutes of privacy. As before, they stated that they would do this. Later that evening, I learned that not only had that recorded some of this but the station aired it for all to see. As I stated earlier, my initial disgust was for those who felt it was necessary to capture this sort of imagery. Truthfully, to some extent, they still disgust me and always will.
As the next 2 days unfolded the media outlets barraged us with telephone calls, emails and requests of any kind for any and all information that they could solicit. Our dispatchers, who answer majority of these calls truly must be mentally exhausted by the time their shift ends. Remember, they too have to deal with tragedies like this and play a critical role in how these incidents are responded to. They are often over-looked and shouldn't be. For the most part, the calls from the media are very similar. Are there any new developments? Can you tell us "this?" Can you tell us "that?" They call with a ferocious necessity to obtain something new; something shocking.
I wonder though is it really their fault? Are they really doing something that is so disgusting? These people, the members of the media, the photographers, the video camera operators, they are really just like you are, and I must confess; they're just like I am. They're only trying to provide the material that people want. It has become acceptable, almost expected, that the front page of the leading story be as graphic as possible. The more alarming, the more dreadful, the better it is. The people who capture it first and the people who get as close to the carnage as possible are awarded for their efforts. It's now considered a success to get the worst and get it first.
We can fool ourselves into believing that it's the "news" and we are entitled to know about it, entitled to see it. I am a proud American who wholeheartedly believes in our Constitution; all of it. Not by what we've tried to interpret as, but for what it says. The first amendment is a foundational right that we, as free Americans, should appreciate, something we should protect. But what are we actually looking for now? Are we looking for the "news?" Do we really want to know what happened how it happened? How can it affect us? Or, are we looking for entertainment? Are we subtly, secretly, hoping to be shocked ?
The reason why I ask this question is because of another observation that I've made. In fact, I'm able to make a prediction because of it. Right now, at least for today, in our little corner of the planet, the accident on Route 4 in Berwick where four people died, one of which was a little boy is the focal point, the leading story for our local news. It will be until something more tragic happens or until they've squeezed as much juicy information as possible out of it. Once something else tragic, or controversial happens, this story will become less and less significant. Eventually, it will vanish, except for the people involved.
So, I am back to the question of whether we are really looking for the "news?" Are we looking for useful, helpful information so that we know about what has happened around us? Or are we looking for entertainment?
Today, we've become somewhat comfortable with all the violence, all the tragedy, and all the controversy. As a society it seems like we almost idolized the people who are committing the most heinous acts. They reach a distorted level of fame for the senseless killing of another human being. I cringe to even propose the notion that as a society we increase the level of fame in proportionate to the number of victims.
We wonder why we have mass shootings and senseless acts of random violence. We've sort of turned these monsters into celebrities. The next festering monster sits and watches how we all devour the carnage that was just created and then how we wait silently for more. I wonder if they decide to try to top the last monster, decide to kill more? If we didn't wan it, we wouldn't watch it, read it or listen to it. It wouldn't be sensationalized and sadly the monster wouldn't be the leading story.
We can't blame the camera operator, we can't blame the photographer and we can't blame the reporters. We have reached a point where video-taping an incident takes place before we intervene. We watch it, we capture it, we post it. Why, because that's where we're at as society. I wonder, I wonder if I asked any of you to come video tape one of your loved ones, would you? Would you want them to become a picture for the leading story that day? Would you want to learn of their passing in the media? It's worthy to note, it was 26 hours before we were able to identify the victims and make notifications to their families. But that didn't matter right. It wasn't on of your loved ones.
Do I like the way that the incident on Route 4 was reported? Do I like the way people felt it was necessary to capture horrible images? Do I like the way that the little boy on Route 4 was reduced to a leading story? I don't, I don't like it all! Sadly though, we all continue to perpetuate the way this happened. I just hope we all decide that it needs to change.
Chief of Police