Communication key to public safety in Sweet Home (May 3, 2023)

By Scott Swanson
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

The public disclosure, reported on page 1, that a neighbor of Foster School shot bullets which struck the school building on a Sunday morning in March, has stirred emotions in Sweet Home.

Certainly, it’s sparked some energetic conversations. And it should.

Before we go any further, it’s good to hear both city and school officials openly acknowledge that keeping this thing under wraps was a really bad idea.

It was. For a number of reasons.

When we learn – literally more than a month after it happened – that a guy was shooting bullets into a building which, on school days, contains 300-plus children, it almost defies imagination that this should somehow be deemed a matter to keep on the down-low.

When the involuntary response to such information is “Whaaaaaat?” – uttered in a falsetto tone of shock, that should be a tip-off that this was something that needed to be conveyed to the public – and not 40 days after it happened.

We get that there are some tricky balances here.

Law enforcement officials are required to protect “sensitive” health information, including mental health conditions, under state law. That’s one side of the issue and it’s a legitimate concern for law enforcement and other public officials.

The Foster incident involved an individual who has been in mental health care for more than a month now, and we get why public officials were concerned about protecting privacy concerns in this situation. That’s why they haven’t released his name yet.

But this was a lot bigger than one person and, given the atmosphere we’re living in now, keeping a damper on the realities of this situation was far from the correct choice.

That is simply common sense. We live in an environment in which very real public angst is fed by a constant barrage of bad news. It’s no secret that our world is a lot dicier than it was, even a few years ago. In the minds of many, life is more dangerous. Many of us are on high alert now.

We’re certainly not advocating paranoia here, but few reasonable persons would argue that the world today is unchanged from even five years ago. Whether we can blame COVID, a general loss of public morality and decency, an infatuation with selfish interests, we know things are not good.

We’re fed a seemingly unceasing stream of reports about homicidal violence, too often now against children, the elderly, the infirm.

Few would argue that we live in a less civil society. People are more on edge, more angry, more violent. We hear stories that once were almost unthinkable – with disturbing regularity. In particular, we hear about individuals, especially young people who should be living happy, productive lives, instead perpetrating outrageous acts – murderous attacks on schools, farmers markets, churches and synagogues, sweet 16 parties.

The responsibility of government, above all else, is to ensure public safety – physical security. And that requires not only vigilance and clear decision-making, but good communication, not only between the agencies whose responsibility it is to ensure that safety, but with the public they are sworn to protect.

We’re paying them to keep a handle on things, but not necessarily to keep us in the dark.

Trust is key. Keeping the public in the dark about a dangerous situation, even if it’s been dealt with, does not build trust,

Communication is necessary and, by our officials’ own acknowledgement, it was lacking in this instance – sorely, we might add.

However, we’ve also heard those officials openly acknowledge that they made the wrong call – for whatever reason – and they’ve learned from the experience.

Incidentally, May happens to be Mental Health Awareness Month. That provides a good opportunity to look at this from another perspective: the individual responsible for the act that triggered this whole thing is not just some faceless entity – he’s a person who obviously was having a problem and has been in treatment for over a month. He has a broken window. He has a dog who’s being cared for by neighbors.

We hope the way forward benefits not only the community, but him as well.