TORONTO — Publishing the words of a dying police officer as he lay trapped under an overturned minivan was an appalling breach of ethics and trust and could jeopardize the investigation into the death, the officer’s chief said Thursday.
In a letter of complaint, York Regional Police Chief Eric Jolliffe called on media outlets to apologize to Const. Garrett Styles’ family and remove the radio transmissions from their websites.
“The transmissions depict Const. Styles in obvious pain and distress,” Jolliffe writes in his letter to the Ontario Press Council and Canadian Broadcast Standards Council. “I am, quite frankly, appalled that the media would post these audio recordings in such a callous fashion.”
Just before dawn on Tuesday, police say Styles was dragged 300 metres before being pinned under a minivan he had stopped.
Several media outlets, including The Canadian Press, published or broadcast parts of Styles’ call over his police radio.
In the transmission, the married father of two young children pleads for someone to get the minivan off him, while the dispatcher urges him to keep talking and tells him help is on the way.
The audio recording of the non-encrypted exchanges between Styles and his dispatcher were obtained via RadioReference.com, a website that broadcasts and archives such publicly available transmissions from across North America.
“Their actions have compounded the grief that has stricken the members of this police service and I can only imagine the additional anguish that has been inflicted upon his family,” Jolliffe said.
Media outlets said the call was of compelling news interest and that they took great care in which parts they used.
None said they intended to apologize or remove the material from their websites.
“The Canadian Press believed the call to the dispatcher was an important part of the story of the death of the officer and that no account would be complete without some telling of it,” said Scott White, editor-in-chief of the news service.
“In this case, Styles’ professionalism and stoicism were evident in the recordings, and the public should know of that.”
The CBC said it was “comfortable” with its handling of the material, which involved a heavily edited version of the transmissions.
“One of the things we take into account is sensitivity with regards to victims of crime,” said Jeff Keay, a spokesman for the public broadcaster.
Stephen Ward, a Canadian journalism ethics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tended to side with Jolliffe about the emotional effect of using the transmission.
“The real brute reality of this man dying, I don’t think we need to use that material,” Ward said.
“But police tend to say that these sorts of things jeopardize investigations almost regularly and they don’t.”
The Toronto Star’s Bob Hepburn said the death of a police officer prompts strong public interest, noting the transcript was “readily” available.
Similarly, Emily Young Lee, a spokeswoman for CTV News, said the information demonstrated the “true bravery” of the officer and was not overplayed by the network.
In a response to the chief, Toronto Sun editor-in-chief James Wallace said the paper fulfilled its obligation to inform the public about Styles’ “heroic” deeds and expressed confidence the paper made “appropriate” use of the available facts and materials.