Police silence a cause for concern

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 October, 2011, 12:00am

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The delay of a week in alerting the public to random knife attacks by an unidentified assailant in one of our city's most densely populated districts has raised concerns in the community. Earlier this month, at least four passers-by were stabbed by a man suspected of suffering mental illness within an 11-hour period in Tseung Kwan O. One of the victims is still in hospital and the attacker has not been caught. Details of the wounding spree only came to light in a newspaper report a week later. The delay has sparked allegations police covered up the case and, by keeping quiet, put public safety at risk.

Residents are understandably angry they were not alerted to the danger in the neighbourhood immediately. Confirming the attacks in a hastily arranged media briefing on Sunday, a senior police officer said routine patrolling had been stepped up. That is good to hear. But he declined to explain why information had been withheld from the public, despite repeated questions by reporters.

There may be operational reasons for not making such information public. Sometimes there is a concern that to do so will alert the suspect and prevent police from making a quick arrest. But this does not appear to be the case with the stabbings. A clear explanation is needed. If the intention was to avoid alarming people, the decision has backfired. The belated confirmation has fuelled speculation and worry. It there were operational reasons for withholding the information, details should be provided as soon as possible.

The way in which information about crimes and accidents is disseminated to the media has been the subject of criticism in the past. Media organisations have complained that the police often do not take the initiative to disclose major incidents until the news leaks out and they are asked for verification. The Journalists' Association has vowed to take up the latest case with the police. Keeping the public informed when serious crimes are being committed is necessary in the interests of public safety.