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Lessons from strange, controversial case

Published August 23. 2013 4:00AM

Well, that explains a lot.

On the evening of July 20 New London police began an investigation into an alleged sexual assault in the downtown area. It would be a few days before the department acknowledged the investigation and then only after fielding inquiries about it.

The handling of the matter raised legitimate questions. Why did police not go public about the incident immediately, alerting citizens to be careful with a suspect at large? And why were so few details released, missing the opportunity for citizens to be the eyes and ears of police and help solve the crime?

Now, it appears, we know why.

On Wednesday the NLPD announced it was closing the investigation after concluding the woman making the charges had lied. The sexual act was consensual, police said, basing that conclusion on the evidence and a follow-up interview with the woman.

This would explain the reluctance of the police to say much about the crime initially, because it appears from the start they were not sure they had a crime. Police were hardly in a position during the past month to explain their unusual handling of the case. The department could not state the allegation might be false, not until investigators knew all the facts.

The investigation of the alleged rape, the fact that it was not reported initially, along with associated speculation whether the mayor's office was trying to cover up the incident for fear of looking weak on crime (no credible evidence has been offered that it was), became daily fodder for the local radio talk show hosts on 94.9-FM News Now. Much of that talk about the alleged assault, and about crime in New London generally, was needlessly alarmist and sensational. The speculation also found its way to TV newscasts.

Yet in this age of radio talk with few ground rules, of anonymous conjecture and criticism on the Internet - including in reader comments on theday.com articles - the old behavioral boundaries for public debate have eroded. This matter was evidence of that. There will be no going back.

Of more legitimate concern are apparent leaks that came from within the NLPD in the midst of a sensitive, on-going investigation into a possible sexual assault. Did these leaks, as Mayor Finizio suspects, have the purpose of discrediting his administration and police chief at a time of morale problems within the department and when a contract is under negotiation?

"This has risen to a level where you're compromising investigations this has got to stop," said Mayor Finizio last week, when the rape investigation remained active. "If indeed law enforcement officers are leaking confidential documents and potentially committing crimes to further that effort, to demean the city they work for and take a paycheck from, yeah, we've gone to an extreme level."

The ongoing internal investigation into whether any laws or departmental regulations were violated is appropriate.

It is also appropriate in the upcoming New London council elections to have a debate about public safety and policing. The NLPD has seen a dramatic and troubling reduction in its ranks due to officers leaving for other departments. There is a problem.

But those running for office must resist the urge to turn every crime, or alleged crime, into evidence that New London is in a crisis, its streets unsafe. Crime happens, and it happens more in urban centers. It is a distortion, however, to suggest that criminals run amok in New London. Doom-laden rhetoric hurts the city, its reputation and its businesses. Perspective is in order.

Some good has come of this episode. The NLPD is reviewing how it handled the release of information in this instance and handles communication with the media and public generally. Reporters (or the public) who visit the police station can now review all incident listings - not just arrest logs - and can ask questions about particular occurrences. When all the information is out there, police cannot be accused of covering up any particular matter.

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