After a man suspected of shooting an Orlando police officer in the head barricaded himself in an apartment with four children, crisis negotiators early Monday began the delicate task of trying to persuade Gary Wayne Lindsey Jr. to release the kids to safety.
But Lindsey wasn’t only speaking with police. About 9:30 Monday morning, nearly 10 hours after the standoff began with the shooting of Officer Kevin Valencia, a staffer at WFTV-Channel 9 reached out to Lindsey on Facebook. He responded and an hours-long conversation began.
During its newscast at 6 p.m. Tuesday, WFTV said it immediately contacted the Orlando Police Department after making contact with Lindsey — which sent several officers to the station and oversaw the conversation. But experts in journalism ethics and law-enforcement tactics questioned the outlet’s decision to initiate contact with a violent suspect during an active and volatile situation.
“During active hostage situations, it is very dangerous for the press to contact anybody involved in the situation because it can cost somebody else their life,” said Kelly McBride, the vice president of The Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists which often poses questions about ethical dilemmas. “The best practice is to report the situation from a distance.”
Matt Parcell, WFTV’s news director, declined to comment when reached by the Orlando Sentinel on Thursday.
Sgt. Eduardo Bernal, an Orlando police spokesman, confirmed WFTV initiated the conversation with Lindsey. Authorities are still sorting through the messages, he said
“We would advise anyone, media or not, to not contact anyone involved in an active incident,” he said. “We have personnel specifically trained to handle these types of incidents and contact by an untrained person can increase the dangers associated with an already volatile situation.
During Lindsey’s conversation with WFTV, which the station later reported on air and on its website, he said he told authorities that he would release the children only if he had the opportunity to speak with his ex-girlfriend — the victim of the original domestic-violence call to which police responded.
Detectives say the children were likely killed in their beds before or shortly after the 21-hour standoff began, before the TV station reached out to Lindsey on Facebook. When the standoff ended Monday night, Lindsey was found dead in a closet with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Lindsey claimed that his ex-girlfriend was physically abusive toward him and the children, according to screenshots of the chat posted by the station.
He also told WFTV that he wanted his ex-girlfriend to know he was sorry, according to the station’s report: “[I] love her. Always have. Always will.”
Both WFTV and the Orlando Police Department have said there was no indication that Lindsey planned on harming the children during their conversations.
Jack Cambria, the former commander of the New York Police Department’s hostage negotiation team, said contacting Lindsey could have undermined law enforcement’s control of the situation.
“We need that element of control,” he said. “I don’t support that and neither would any police agency.”
Andrew Seaman, the ethics chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, said trying to communicate with suspects in hostage situations is akin to broadcasting the location of law enforcement during active shooter scenarios.
“SPJ’s Code of Ethics says journalists should seek truth and report it, but it also says they should minimize harm. In certain situations, it means exercising restraint,” he said.
Though journalists often must communicate with people in emotional or tense scenarios, reaching out to an armed person with hostages crosses a line, said Clay Calvert, a professor of mass communication at the University of Florida and director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project.
“This wasn’t a case of obtaining an interview after the event had concluded,” Calvert said. “This was a case of a news organization injecting itself directly into the vortex of a dangerous event and possibly interfering with roles typically played by law enforcement officials … We expect journalists to report the news, not to become part of it.”
At 9:18 Monday night, the station sent its final message to Lindsey: “Hey — we got reports of a loud noise out there … what’s happening?”
There was no response.
Michael Williams can be reached at [email protected], 407-420-5022 or @michaeldamianw.