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Sheriff Takes Aim at Local Media

Will switching out police line tape change perceptions?

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Sheriff Takes Aim at Local Media

Sheriff John Rutherford talks with residents during a Crime Prevention Walk.

Photo © City of Jacksonville.
You’ve seen it a million times on TV, primarily primetime cop shows and your local evening news. It’s an unmistakable signal that something is afoul and that somebody is to blame. Well, Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford has had with the glaring yellow tape that silently screams “murder and mayhem.” He wants locals to know that the alarm over Jacksonville’s climbing crime rate is nothing more than media scare tactics designed to fluster up ratings. So, he’s designed a solution of his own: switching out the familiar yellow with a candy-striped red and white.

The Big Tease

The logic behind the move, Rutherford told local media, is in the media’s own practice of persistently teasing newscasts with foreboding words of crime and crisis and tight shots of yellow crime scene tape strewn about. Never mind that the incident took place a thousand miles away in Somewhereelseville, USA. Curious viewers are bound to remain stuck to their TV sets for just a bit longer. They’re itching to see if, when the camera zooms out, they recognize the crime scene as the home of the quiet guy down the street, the strip mall where they shop for groceries, or Uncle Louie’s corner snack store.

"I think local TV stations do this community a disservice by not clearly describing where crimes are when they are reported," Rutherford told reporters recently, suggesting that shots of the red and white tape will clearly identify whether a teased crime story is a local one. "This is my way of trying to combat it."

Desperate Measures

Some see Rutherford’s move as a desperate public relations tactic, noting statistics that show Jacksonville has led Florida’s murder rate for the past eight years. Rutherford doesn’t dispute that statistic. In fact, in December, he asked city officials for funding to hire 225 new police officers to help get a handle on the city’s growing violence problem (Stats showed a 12-percent boost in the number of violent crimes in 2007 over 2006). In March, a mayor-appointed committee recommended half that figure. Still, he says that the hype is making the numbers sound much worse than they actually are. He has noted the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s Operation Safe Streets program, which helped reduce Jacksonville’s murder rate by 38 percent in the second half of 2006.

Great stuff, critics say. But will the new red and white tape, emblazoned with the same JSO badge and “Police Line: Do Not Cross” as the familiar yellow tape, actually help combat crime?
No, Rutherford says. But it will help ease the minds of already jittery locals who go into panic mode when they see yellow on the TV screen three hours before the next newscast airs. Plus, the new tape, that some say looks darn near festive, lists a phone number for Crime Stoppers, a local tip line. That, Rutherford says, just may help boost the city’s crime solve rate by encouraging witnesses to phone in tips.

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