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City, slammed for outreach on April 27 incident, says communications plan in the works

News Photo by Julie Riddle Alpena City Manager Rachel Smolinski at City Hall on Tuesday shares plans for possible improvement to the city’s communication with residents.

ALPENA — A new city communications policy may be in Alpena’s future as some residents accuse police of not saying enough about a recent act of violence.

Residents have clamored for more details about an alleged break-in, assault, and manhunt in the early morning hours of April 27. That incident led to a police-issued warning to several residents through the city’s Smart911 alert system and through a local radio station about two men — possibly armed and dangerous — who had eluded police.

But only late that morning did the Alpena Police Department issue a press release to other media that detailed some information about the crime, including that the two men abandoned their vehicle after a police chase and escaped by climbing a fence on Ford Avenue.

Police said then they did not believe the public faced any further danger.

Several residents, however, say police didn’t give them enough information about the incident to know whether they were safe.

News Photo by Julie Riddle In her South 2nd Avenue home in late April, Alpena resident Kathryn Schmanski and her son, John, wonder why police didn’t share more information about a violent attack at a nearby residence.

A communications plan — currently absent from the city’s policies but in the works since before the incident — may help the city share public safety news with residents, according to Alpena City Manager Rachel Smolinski.

Violence, especially close at hand, is scary, Smolinski conceded.

Still, some information can’t be made public without endangering an investigation, she said on Tuesday.

“We’re not going to put information out there that jeopardizes the public,” Smolinski said.

Smolinski said she’s tried to develop a communications plan for more than a year. In the next few months, she will work with city staff to create a plan, which would then go to the Alpena Municipal Council for input.

At this point, Smolinski couldn’t say what such a plan would look like. Alpena’s budget probably won’t allow for a full-time communications position, she said.

“There’s always room for improvement in communications,” Smolinski said. “As a government, you’re always looking for ways to improve. If you stop doing that, you’re not doing your job.”

‘WHAT’S GOING ON?’

Meanwhile, some residents want to know more about what happened April 27.

APD announced on March 5 that police had arrested Allan Hughes, of Wyoming, Michigan, in Arizona on several charges related to the April 27 incident. The second man, not identified, apparently remained on the run. Police have released no further information.

Police have not said why the men broke into the home, whether two guns found on the roadside during the manhunt belonged to the men or were their only weapons, how the men escaped, or why police felt the men no longer posed a threat to the community.

Alpena Police Chief Joel Jett in an email to The News on Tuesday that disclosing other details could be detrimental to the success of the still-active investigation and he’ll provide more information to the public at the appropriate time.

Smolinski said she could not answer specific questions from The News about the incident. She said she’s fielded several phone calls thanking the city for its police response to the April 27 incident.

But, for a full week following the incident, callers from Alpena voiced frustrations on a morning show of Traverse City-based radio station WKLT, according to Producer Rick Coates.

Early on the 27th, while police still hunted for the armed men, on-air hosts took information from one caller who said he worked at Decorative Panels International, where police said the assailants fled. Another caller reported what he heard on a police scanner.

Coates called APD, hoping to ask Jett to share an update on the air, but had to leave a message, Coates said. He was later told Jett tried to return the call but couldn’t get through, Coates said.

The News couldn’t reach Jett for a few hours the morning of April 27.

Without a police voice to offer more definitive information, the media couldn’t tell residents if they should worry about taking their children to school or about dangerous men hiding in their garage, Coates said.

Alpena resident Kathryn Schmanski, who lives close to the home where the initial break-in allegedly occurred, said she watched the nightly news and scoured the newspaper for days after the incident, hoping for an update on the violent crime in her neighborhood.

Knowing little about what had happened and what police were doing about it, she worried the men had taken shelter with someone nearby.

Her son, John, thought about going in search of the men himself after he heard about the incident.

“Are there questions I wish police would answer?” he said. “Absolutely. What’s going on?”

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