It took more than two months for Saratoga Springs Police Chief Chris Cole and his team to admit to and half-assedly apologize for the epic mishandling of a violent rape case, much to the dismay of the city's residents, who say they may have been put in danger because of the department's missteps. How did this happen?
On September 1st, a young women in her twenties was brutally raped — thrown to the ground and subsequently hospitalized — on a residential corner in Saratoga Springs, New York, just blocks away from the small city's world-famous racetrack. But barely anyone knew about it until weeks later, because the police didn't think it was a big enough deal to send out a press release, or provide a description of the alleged rapist, or make any public statement at all.
When reporters finally caught onto the story, the cops refused to cooperate by telling them what happened. On September 19th, The Saratogian ran a three sentence piece that said the police department was investigating the rape but could not confirm many details. On October 1st, the Times Union provided a bit more info: the rapist knocked the woman down as she was walking home between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., and she was later treated at the hospital. The paper called the rape "violent," but said "additional details were not available."
...why wasn't there an alarm sounded, something along the lines of "THERE IS A VIOLENT RAPIST ON THE LOOSE"? This is a college town [Ed. note: Skidmore College is in Saratoga], there are bound to be tons of young women walking home late at night, yet as far as I have heard, there was no big warning. Besides college aged women, there are women and girls of all ages out jogging, alone, walking home, alone, walking their dogs, walking with children, women at risk. Is it wrong to think that this should have been front page news?
The next day, the police department made another announcement, explaining that they didn't inform the public because they did not want to cause "unnecessary panic" among the citizens. "You're striking that balance between notifying the public and creating chaos," Lt. John Catone told the The Saratogian, explaining why they never issued a press release and waited over a month to provide a description of the subject. "If I just say a 6-foot-tall Hispanic male, does that mean every 6-foot-tall Hispanic male goes on a watch list?" he asked. "You're looking for that proverbial needle in a haystack."
Um. Has this guy ever worked for a police department? What does he think the role of the police should be when a violent rapist is on the loose in a college town?
More residents started to get upset, so then the police made another foot-in-mouth announcement explaining that there hadn't been any more rape incidents in recent weeks (congrats!), meaning they were totally right not to tell anyone what happened or even provide any details upon request. In a letter to Public Safety Commissioner Christian Mathiesen, City Police Chief Christopher Cole said that he didn't believe the public was in danger, "otherwise, a formal notification would have been made to the public regarding this crime." Mathiesen supported his theory, saying, "The fact that there weren't any further attacks of that sort on that side of the city would indicate that the police were certainly right that the public was not in danger." The Saratogian noted that the letter didn't address the fact that police had also refused to answer reporters' questions about the attack.
Cole, however, helpfully explained his department's criteria for deciding whether to inform the public about crimes: it depends on how "serious" they are. We guess "incredibly violent rape" just isn't that big a deal? Naturally, Mathiesen added in some solid advice about how women should protect themselves from being assaulted and raped: "take more personal responsibility for their own safety" and "use common sense." Apparently, in Saratoga Springs, "more personal responsibility" means"don't depend on the police to notify you when your safety is at risk."
The Saratoga Springs police department is not without its problems. Last year, Cole was suspended for a month and put on a three-year probation for repeatedly sending sexually explicit texts messages and pictures of himself to a woman who eventually reported the messages to the police department because Cole wouldn't listen to her when she told him to stop. Professional! Especially since he sent at least one of them from the police department, which is why his sexts resulted in official punishment. Just this week, three Saratoga Spring cops were suspended after allegedly assaulting a man at a bar. Would you trust these officers to discern whether a crime is "serious" enough to be publicized?
Finally, after mounting pressure from the community and a Change.org petition, Cole issued a statement on Tuesday acknowledging that "numerous citizens of Saratoga Springs feel the police department failed them." Of course, he didn't actually say the department made a mistake, just that "In retrospect, it may have been appropriate to release a general statement regarding the incident." Yes, indeed. At least he didn't say "sorry I'm not sorry, haters" while giving the finger?
The story's not over yet: Witte told us that Mathiesen is angry that she didn't "come to him first" before writing the petition, and wants to have a private meeting with Cole, Witte and the other leaders tomorrow afternoon to discuss further. "City Officials are not allowed to respond when people are presenting a petition at a City Council meeting but the [Mathiesen] was quite vocal," she said, adding that she has no clue what he wants to talk about — or why he would've expected her to get in touch before harnessing local support. "The whole point was that they didn't alert the public," Witte said. "Why would I have gone to him privately?"
In the meantime, Cole has apparently downgraded the incident to an "assault" instead of a rape "because he says that is what they found evidence of," according to WRGB-TV. "He is not saying a rape did not occur, but that that part of the story is still being investigated." What? So now it wasn't even a rape to begin with? Or maybe it was, but, two months later, they're still not sure? Nice job, team!
Perhaps it's a stretch to say Cole's failure to take the rape seriously is directly connected to the fact that he's currently on probation for sending some shady sexts while on the job. But his (and his force's) past indiscretions and poor judgment show that the Saratoga Springs Police Department shouldn't have the last word on what is and isn't a "serious" crime.