Police more effective when citizens speak up

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 15, 2009

Notably, after 51-year-old Tyler Lee Smith, long a suspect, was formally charged last week with the July 2008 robbery and murder of retired Assistant Police Chief Walter Cole, credit was given to “citizens coming forward,” apparently with statements and evidence.

Police Chief Walter Armstrong, investigators and all law enforcement personnel involved with the case deserve credit for not letting the case file gather dust and, perhaps, for coaxing people to share what they knew or saw. The larger fact, as the chief was joined by Mayor Paul Winfield in saying, is that the public plays a far larger role than many realize.

Indeed, it could be said that communities collectively set their own standards for response to crime. We can be passive and take on the mantle of victims, assuming nothing can be done. We can be indifferent. We can be carping complainers, who persistently gripe about law enforcement and the courts. We can be unrealistic, expecting police to solve all crimes without any input from residents. After all, that’s how the 60-minute tough guys and techno-wizards on TV dramas do it.

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Or we can be involved, as Winfield and Armstrong have encouraged us to be.

Walter Cole was a good man and a good friend to this community, undertaking jobs and roles once denied to anyone of his race. He hung in against the odds, becoming a counselor and inspiration to those who followed. For him to have been robbed and gunned down at the age of 75 was an insult to everything his life represented. And it was an insult to this community.

It’s not an overwhelming number, but there have been several homicide cases in Vicksburg in which no arrests have been made. There’s also the unsolved murder of a young mother and her child in Cary. Not long ago, District Attorney Ricky Smith announced he was dismissing a murder indictment because witnesses were unwilling to testify.

Those who shared information with police in the Cole case are showing a better way. As Winfield and Armstrong indicate, let’s not live in fear. Not every case can be solved, but none should remain unsolved because citizens with information were reluctant to provide it to authorities.