Hostage lawsuit fallout: Lead with the good news, whisper the bad

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A police vehicle blocks the entrance to Delnor Hospital in Geneva after a Kane County Jail inmate took female employees hostage. | Sam Charles/Sun-Times

Listen to Pat Gengler, spokesman for the Kane County Sheriff’s Office, telling CNN on May 13 how a SWAT team tookdown Tywon Salters after he grabbed a correctional officer’s gun and took a pair of nurses hostage at Delnor Hospital in Geneva, and you’d think the operation was a textbook example of police efficiency.

“The officer was able to get away,” Gengler said of what happened after Salters took a 9 mm handgun away from Officer Shawn Loomis. “The SWAT team made a decision to make entry into the room. One of the SWAT team operators did discharge his firearm, striking the inmate and killing him.”

Nothing about Loomis possibly hiding in a hospital room after losing his weapon.

Nothing about Loomisperhaps failing to alert anybody that there was an armed felon on the loose.

And absolutely nothing about a nurse hostage being shot by the SWAT team — or possibly being raped during the three hours law enforcement was trying to figure out what to do.

To learn that, you have to read a lawsuit filed against theKane County Sheriff’s Office, Loomis, in particular, and Apex3 Security, the company that’s supposed to provide security in the hospital.

That lawsuit, filedThursday, makes alarming reading.

OPINION RELATED: Nurse raped during hostage ordeal at Geneva hospital, lawsuit says Delnor Hospital hostage standoff ends with inmate being shot to death

Loomis, though the only officer named in the lawsuit, was not the only one whose conduct was called into question.

Salters was a 21-year-old Chicago car thief who had eaten his jail-issued sandal and was taken to Delnor to have it removed from his stomach. Another officer assigned to the hospital to guard him at times tapped on a laptop, or fell asleep on the couch, the lawsuit alleges. The prisoner was left unshackled, even after a nurse drew attention to it.

Anyone can file a lawsuit, of course, and I don’t want to take this one as gospel any more than I would take Gengler’s May 13 press conference as gospel. Information can be fluid in a situation like this.

Gengler said he didn’t know the full story when he talked to CNN.

“Some of these things we didn’t have,” hetold me shortly after the lawsuit’s filing. “We don’t always have everything. You don’t always have information at hand.”

Fair enough. Gengler said the sheriff’s department was conducting an internal investigation into the incident. He insists he wasn’t trying to put a rosy spin on anything.

“At no point was any of this going to look good for us,” he said.

The Kane County Sheriff’s Office was positively loquacious in responding to my questions compared to the county prosecutor.

“We do not comment on pending litigation or pending investigations,” Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon said.

That’s his right. So I will comment instead.

First, a caveat. Yes, police work is difficult. Officers have a raft of complicated procedures to follow, and usually follow them. When things go wrong, officers often act heroically in the face of deadly danger.

But not always.

Two observations.

One: Public officials in general and police departments in particular have the alarming trend of turning public disasters into bright-spin PR opportunities. After every tornado, there’s some local sheriff at the microphone, thanking a litany of organizations, praising their response and gung-ho spirit. You’d think it was awards night at the Elks Club.

Two: When things go wrong, it is the duty of public entities to share the bad with the good. The Kane County state’s attorney put out a press release May 15— not in the heat of the moment, but twodays after the incident.

“There are many questions to be answered about this incident,” it quotes McMahon as saying, without a whisper of what those questions may be.

Why was Salters unshackled?

How did he get Loomis’ gun?

Why didn’t Loomis raise an alarm in the hospital?

Why are we only now learning about the SWAT team shooting one of the nurses, as well as the sexual assault allegation?

I can’t answer any of those questions. But I can say the public has a valid interest in the answers — and it shouldn’t require making them into a federal case, literally, before the public even learns they exist.

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