A P.R. Problem in Columbine Country

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Thinking of a career in public relations? Well, you might be tempted by the prospect of making a mint advising Colorado's Jefferson County on how best not to anger the citizens they are supposed to serve.

It sure looks like they could use the help. The decision by the Jefferson County Attorney's Office Wednesday to sell a three-hour video collage of scenes from the Columbine shooting set to Generation X warblings would seem to be nothing short of tasteless. The move, just the latest in a series of public relations gaffes, has sparked such a fast and seemingly predictable public backlash that one can only scratch one's head and ask, "What were they thinking?"

Nor is the uproar confined to the tape's marketing. It turns out the songs used in the video's troubling soundtrack were apparently used without the permission of the record companies that own the rights. They have demanded that the music be removed or for distribution of the tapes to be halted.

The decision certainly suggests continuing ineptitude by personnel apparently ill-equipped to handle the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle they were sucked into a year ago. After all, it was less than six months ago that County Sheriff John Stone got into trouble for screening for TIME magazine reporter Tim Roche the tapes that Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris made prior to their deadly rampage. After a description of the tapes was published in TIME (parent, of course, of this web site), Stone denied that he gave Roche permission to describe what he saw. Roche says he was never asked not to describe the tapes. The public saw the incident as a display of either Stone's insensitivity, dishonesty or lack of thoroughness in not defining the terms of Roche's viewing, and there were renewed calls for his resignation.

Sheriff Stone and his colleagues, though, appear to be mostly between a rock and a hard place. Law enforcement work has always been a balancing act between the rights of individuals and the good of the public. And when that "public" can transform overnight from a community of quiet suburbanites and small weekly papers into a legion of lawyers and an international press corps, that balancing act becomes considerably more complex.

The video episode is a prime example of that complexity; as is the case with most news stories, the facts are considerably more shaded than the headlines. After all, the tape was crafted not by Sheriff Stone's staff, but by a member of the Littleton Fire Department — the sheriff was merely acting as custodian until a judge ruled that the tape be handed over to six of the victims' families, who had sued for its release as part of their efforts to prove that authorities mishandled the rescue and failed to heed warnings of the rampage. The Jefferson County DA then decided that the sheriff's office should make the tapes available to everyone rather than fight a protracted set of lawsuits against the various pockets of the public interested in the tapes.

In addition, although it has been criticized for its perhaps unfortunate juxtaposition of angst-ridden music and scenes from the massacre, the tape appears to have been developed with noble enough intentions. The fireman who put it together did it to help train fire and police departments across North America against being blindsided by future Columbines. But when the videos were released on Wednesday, the press immediately seized upon the songs by musicians such as Sarah McLachlan and Cheryl Wheeler featured on the tape, and the victims' families cited the sensationalistic appearance of the video as evidence of Stone's insensitivity. Why, they asked, didn't Stone's office hand over the tape sans soundtrack to just the families requesting them rather than make them (soundtrack and all) available to anyone who ponies up $25?

Again, the county says it was constrained by matters outside its control. According to a report in the Denver Post, County Attorney Frank Hutfless maintains that to have taken the music off the tapes would have violated the court order for their release. "Had we edited out the music, we would have in effect tampered with the videotape," he is quoted as saying. In addition, Hutfless blames the release in part on the families' lawyers' use of Colorado's Open Records Act to obtain access to the tapes. "[They] could have obtained the same information by using the discovery process" in their negligence and wrongful-death suits against the county, Hutfless said. "The result would have been that the materials would have been available to them but not to anyone who wasn't involved in the lawsuit."

According to the Post, Hutfless said his decision to make the tape available to the public came after information that the tape was given to a television network within hours of its release to the victims' families. "We simply had no choice but to release the videotapes," he said. "If we did not release them, there would have been more lawsuits asking for their release and we would have lost." Hutfless said the $25 charge for each tape was meant only to cover the costs of their reproduction.

All told, the episode — and the ones before it — amount to the almost inevitable result of a bureaucracy caught up in a story of such proportions that it was bound to get out of control And in this regard, Stone and his office has a perhaps surprising defender: TIME's Tim Roche.

"No matter what the sheriff's office does there's a public backlash," says Roche. "It's true they may be somewhat na´ve in dealing with the media, and that may have contributed to their problems in the past, but in this case it seems they did what the families and the public wanted — they turned over the documents. This is a terribly complex case that any police force would have a hard time handling while keeping the public happy."

On second thought, that Jefferson County p.r. job doesn't sound like such a good idea.