Our View: WBPD communication sorely lacking

The Wilkes-Barre City Police Department headquarters building is seen earlier this month. - Aimee Dilger | Times Leader

On Monday night much of Wilkes-Barre’s North End was plunged into chaos and fear.

We know someone fired shots on Wyoming Street near the home of a city police commander who confronted him. We know no injuries were reported. We know no one had been arrested as of Tuesday night.

There’s a lot we don’t know. We and other media outlets pieced stories together from a mix of on- and off-the-record interviews, but more than 36 hours have passed with no formal statement by the Wilkes-Barre Police Department about what happened — or even that anything had happened.

Nor was there any general warning to the community from city police during the incident, despite the fact that a large area was blocked off by officers hunting for a man with a gun, possibly running loose.

Only Wilkes-Barre Township police posted anything about the incident on Monday night — and that Facebook post, which apparently contained some errors, only added to confusion among news outlets and among the public on social media.

Wilkes-Barre, we have a problem.

We’re not saying this because we’re “looking to sell papers” and keep up with the competition. Nor do we expect investigators to “give us a scoop” that would compromise an ongoing investigation.

Yes, city police were busy. But in the 36 hours following Monday night’s incident, posts to WBPD’s own Facebook page included reports of criminal trespass, suspected DUI, possession of a controlled substance, false reports to law enforcement and an alleged rape — all matter, but we’re left wondering how shots fired and a manhunt didn’t rate a mention, since someone in the department clearly had the time to post about other incidents.

Such erratic communication has become all too common with WBPD, and city residents deserve better.

Too often in Wilkes-Barre, the answer reporters receive from police is “when there’s something to report, we’ll post it to Facebook.” Too often, reporters have to rely on anonymous sources within the department to answer questions when those posts never come, or come up woefully short.

Yes, there’s value in using Facebook as a tool for disseminating information to the public and press. But the department’s brief posts often don’t provide a full picture of individual events, let alone the big picture of whether the department is operating effectively and keeping up with crime trends.

Journalists serve the public by helping explain what happened, how police handled it, whether there is ongoing danger to the public and what is expected to happen next. We do that by asking questions. We know officers’ time is precious. So is ours, and we use it to ask about things residents can’t.

Mayor Tony George has a critical opportunity to replace controversial Chief Marcella Lendacky with someone who will restore morale within a demoralized department. We also hope that person will recognize the value of engaging with local media so we can better communicate public safety news. It’s an important civic function effective police chiefs understand.

Hazleton City Police Chief Jerry Speziale, a prolific communicator with local media, gets it.

So did former Scranton Police Chief Dan Duffy, remembered in The Electric City for his “Be Part of the Solution” campaign. Sadly, Duffy’s communication style as an officer here led to clashes with George and others at WBPD, and he was, controversially, terminated.

Wilkes-Barre needs a chief who gets it.

— Times Leader

The Wilkes-Barre City Police Department headquarters building is seen earlier this month.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/web1_TTL040518POLICE1-4.jpgThe Wilkes-Barre City Police Department headquarters building is seen earlier this month. Aimee Dilger | Times Leader