Why did it take police 11 hours to tell us about three dangerous escaped criminals on the loose?
SUFFOLK: Questions are being raised today over why it took Suffolk police more than 11 hours to tell residents of the possible danger from three escaped criminals on the run from a secure hospital.
The trio broke out of St John’s House in Palgrave, near Diss, at around 1am on Sunday, leaving a male nurse with a minor head injury in the process.
But despite police mounting a massive search operation including sniffer dogs, the police helicopter and scrambling armed response cars to the scene to deal with the potential danger, they failed to tell the media and the public about the escape until lunchtime – leading to questions over an apparent air of secrecy within the force.
Media commentator Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at London’s City University, said it was “deplorable” that police had not at least sent out a brief warning to alert residents to the possible danger.
Police insist they waited to put out something meaningful, so they did not cause “unnecessary alarm”.
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Mr Greenslade said: “I think it’s deplorable in these days of instantaneous communications.
“It’s extraordinary that this wasn’t at least tweeted straight away – let alone passed on to a newspaper.
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“The media is a key resource for the police – even in these days when the public have access to social media, the bulk of the population treat newspapers as credible and believable, and so we are at the frontline.
“Newspapers exist to provide information that is of benefit to the public and this information was of tremendous benefit.”
Two of the escaped convicts – Ross Beeby and Jason Williams – were recaptured by police at around 2.20pm when they were spotted cycling along the A140 towards Diss by an off-duty member of staff from the secure hospital, where they are now being kept once again.
But 21-year-old Luke Sparks is still on the run as police extend their search across the country to Bristol, where he is known to have family and friends.
Chief Superintendent David Skevington defended the force’s handling of the incident.
He said: “It can be difficult to decide whether to put it into the public domain, and to decide whether to alert the public, and there are definitely some lessons to learn as far as that goes. I accept that sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t.
“But while we can’t wait unnecessarily to get information out, it’s important – bearing in mind the types of people who had escaped from St John’s House – that we make sure we have got our facts right so we understand what threat they pose to individuals or the wider community.
“It’s always a difficult decision and I’m willing to review it, and it may be that we could have put something out earlier, but it’s not because we were neglecting public safety – that’s our top priority – we just needed to make sure we were putting something out that was meaningful and didn’t cause unnecessary alarm.”
He added that officers spent time putting together an accurate description of what the three were wearing, as well as gathering photos of the trio.
But this is not the first time Suffolk police have come under fire for delays in passing possibly valuable information to the public.
When two 11-year-old girls disappeared from Stowmarket in August, the force failed to enlist help from the media in tracking down the missing youngsters.
Although they were eventually found safe and well after a five-hour search of the area, no information was given out to the media for another two days.
The force remained similarly tight-lipped over the disappearance of a 57-year-old woman in Capel St Mary on a freezing night last December, when the public – if alerted – could have helped track her down by reporting sightings.
Barry White, national organiser for the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, said he understood the need to provide accurate information but said it was in the public interest to know about the escape as soon as possible.
He said: “The police should want to get the information out there to the public as quickly as possible. The media can reach people much quicker than anyone else so I would think it’s in their interests to get the message out there.”
n Do you think police were right to delay their media release? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail eveningstarletters@evening star.co.uk