Sometimes the answer to a complex situation is the simplest one: not saying something you don’t know.
On Tuesday, the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton made a significant blunder that unnecessarily terrified students and parents across Helena and, it appears, North Central Montana, when he ran to the press to announce that an “improvised explosive device” had “detonated” at an elementary school in Helena. The IED, of course, turned out to be a soda bottle.
While the local schools sensibly went into their “shelter in place” protocols to ensure there was no threat, Dutton’s decision to hype an imaginary threat dramatically escalated the fears of students locked in classrooms waiting for news and parents who wanted, understandably, to check in on their children.
I’m not sure whether Sheriff Dutton understands how quickly the misinformation he disseminated spread across social media, but he should know that there were students in classrooms who were concerned enough about the threat of bombs in their schools that they felt the need to text their parents that they loved them.
I’m not sure that Dutton and others understand just how afraid students are, given the way of violence in American schools. I’m not sure they’ve seen students jump when they hear a loud bang in a classroom near them or that they’ve seen students traumatized by active shooter drills.
But he should know. And he should keep that in mind the next time he decides wild speculation to the press is appropriate.
And the IR seems to be giving Dutton a bizarre free pass—and even justification for his misstatement—in today’s editorial. They write:
As Sheriff Leo Dutton mentioned in his Tuesday morning press conference, those who need to see proof of every detail before hearing from law enforcement should be prepared to wait. It often takes days, weeks or even months for authorities to complete their investigation, and people can’t afford to wait that long when life and property are at stake.
Unfortunately, that means both law enforcement and the media will sometimes report inaccurate information during a crisis that must be corrected later. But that’s a much better option than putting the public at risk by withholding information about a credible threat, which would be inexcusable.
No. What was inexcusable was terrifying the people of Helena before the facts were known. The IR is positing a false linkage between informing the public and immediacy. The editorial headline even says, “In an emergency, it’s better to be safe than sorry,” but it’s hard to understand how anyone was made safer by Dutton’s poor public relations strategy.
What harm would have been done if Dutton had simply quietly notified the school district that a “shelter in place” was in order while his officers investigated at Rossiter? There was no justification for jumping to wild speculation about a bomb. There was no need to dramatically escalate the fears of students in other schools who were reading in real-time that a terrorist threat might exist in another school.
And it’s hard to read Dutton’s explanation to the IR—where he deftly shifted the blame to other officers and constructed a rationalization for believing the bottle that detonated that strains credulity—without getting the idea that he hasn’t yet learned a lesson from his decision to be “forthright and honest about exactly what I knew.”
The officers who investigated the site did an excellent job and they should be commended for their rapid response to a potential threat to our kids. No one is questioning that. But to argue that the people of Lewis and Clark County were somehow made safer when they were fed misinformation makes no sense at all.
Thanks to the law enforcement officers who work to keep our kids safe. Let’s hope the public information Sheriff Dutton provides matches their professionalism next time.