Our View: A dangerous breakdown in communication

October 11, 2011 5:27:00 PM



Local law enforcement seems to be at a loss on how to handle the recent surge in crime. Or at least how to communicate effectively enough to make us feel safe in our own backyard. 


The several shooting deaths in the past weeks already had us on edge. 


Then last week, police let a man accused of shooting at a coworker on one of the city's busiest streets just go home. After a bout with Bernard Harris, James Douglas was left injured, and the Lowndes County jail didn't have room to put him in a private cell. So Columbus police let him go. 


Thankfully, Douglas turned himself in Friday to face his assault charges. Douglas' willingness to turn himself in doesn't make it any less frightening that authorities saw fit to let a man accused of such a violent crime walk away, free and clear, without even charging him. 


Policy says prisoners with certain medical needs have to be housed in a cell to themselves, but there were other options aside from letting Douglas go. Lowndes County's is not the only jail in the area. 


Compounding the issue, on Thursday morning leadership at the Columbus Police Department, including Interim Chief Selvain McQueen and Assistant Chief Joe Johnson, had no idea where Douglas was or even that he had been released. To the best of their knowledge, he had been charged and left at the jail.  


Before they got the debacle cleared up, at least one local media outlet already had reported Douglas as a fugitive on the loose. 


The shooting was Wednesday night, and by Friday, the police department had issued a press release, trying to clear up the situation. By then, it was too late. 


For at least a day, we thought there was another situation like that of Lee Major Wilder, who is facing a capital murder charge in Lowndes County. Due to a paperwork error - the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office blamed the state prison; the state prison blames the sheriff's office - Wilder was released from a Walnut Grove prison last year and went on a 20-day run from the law before being caught in Florida. 


The most recent debacle is just more evidence that local law enforcement needs to get it together. 


Last month, during a bomb and sniper threat at Columbus Middle School, the sheriff's and police departments couldn't even figure out who was in charge. 


Apparently, they signed an agreement saying the city police would handle emergencies at the school, which is just outside city limits. But state law says the school is outside of Columbus police jurisdiction. 


It's just another example of the breakdown in communication within local law enforcement. 


To his credit, McQueen seems more than willing to communicate with the public. (See his letter to the editor below.) The issue seems to be communication within the department and the lack of a single contact person in charge of disseminating information to the public, as there has been in the past. 


We don't pretend to have a solution to the problem, but we are asking those in charge to offer one. 


Violent offenders shouldn't be simply let go just hours after they open fire in public. Capital murder suspects shouldn't be released over a missing piece of paper. And in a situation that had the potential to put the lives of hundreds of children at stake, everyone ought to know who's calling the shots.