MADISON, Wis. – The state's top law enforcement official is drawing criticism for encouraging the public not to answer reporters' questions about a north woods shooting by an off-duty sheriff's deputy that left seven dead, including the gunman.
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen last week said law enforcers would not answer questions about the case in the city where it took place, and he relayed a request that Crandon residents ignore reporters asking questions. He then left the podium without taking questions.
A week after the shooting, authorities have released little or no information on autopsy findings, certain 911 calls made during a manhunt and crime-scene evidence. The crime is one state's biggest homicide cases, and in addition to being a deputy, the shooter was also a part-time officer on the Crandon police force.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said in an editorial Thursday that among the questions left unanswered is whether there was a problem with the police response, and whether psychological screening is needed for police recruits.
"The news media must give the survivors room to grieve in private," the editorial said. "But they must also do their job — report on a matter of great importance to the state. Unfortunately, Van Hollen has signaled that he may make the media's job harder."
Van Hollen said Tuesday at a news conference that victims' families had "asked me to ask the community at large to stop talking to the press. As such, we in the law enforcement community will do our part by having no further comments to the press from Forest County."
Van Hollen was simply passing on the victims' families' "very human desire to grieve in peace," said Kevin St. John, a spokesman for the state Department of Justice, which Van Hollen leads. More information will be released in time, he said.
Still, the Wausau Daily Herald called Van Hollen's statement inappropriate. "No one has the authority to suggest that an entire community remain silent," read an editorial Friday.
Unanswered questions still abound, the editorial said, including what led to the suspect's death. "How did he end up with three pistol wounds to the head and a rifle wound to an arm?"
Authorities have said that 20-year-old Tyler Peterson gunned down six people, including his ex-girlfriend, when he went to their late-night pizza party Oct. 7. Peterson wounded another person at the party before fleeing.
Officers from a number of agencies tracked Peterson to a cabin later in the day, but Peterson fatally shot himself as they closed in, the attorney general has said.
The shooting drew dozens of reporters to Crandon, a town of 2,000 about 100 miles northwest of Green Bay. Many residents refused to speak to them after Van Hollen's statement. Some told reporters to go home.
Crandon Mayor Gary Bradley said he wished Van Hollen would have come down harder on the press.
"The news media was very aggressive, very aggressive people. They're not taking into consideration what people are going through here," Bradley said. "They set their cameras up with no regard to where they were. These people aren't running around with their brains."
But Doug Lee, an attorney who writes for Vanderbilt University's First Amendment Center, said that while some reporters do act like "rabid dogs," they're the minority. The attorney general's request reflects a trend in government to treat the media as the enemy, he said.
"You would think in an environment like this one, where there are a lot of emotions flying around, part of the grieving process, part of the healing process, would be to talk and to share," Lee said. "It's somewhat patronizing. Why can't people make their own determinations about speaking to the media?"