Pull the names from police beat? We say no
Last updated 7/8/2020 at 11:30pm | View PDF
"Why do you print names in police beat?" a resident asked us recently, being of the opinion - as you might guess - that we should not.
My initial reaction was to blurt out something like, "Because we've always done it that way."
But that's not a very good defense. I've also been trying to follow the advice of a Facebook friend's post in June: "Can we consider the possibility that possibly we don't know what we don't know?"
So I asked myself if indeed we should stop publishing the names of arrestees in police beat. I asked publisher Jim Slonoff and associate editor Ken Knutson to help me consider that possibility.
We talked to members of the legal community and of law enforcement. We read articles. We surveyed our reader advisory board. We discussed multiple scenarios about running no names or only some names. And we listened to the resident who posed the question in the first place.
We agreed - as did the vast majority of the people we talked to - that we should continue our longstanding practice. We also agreed this would be an excellent opportunity to share our reasons for doing so with readers. So here they are, more or less in order.
1. Newspapers report the news.
The most important topics we report on are the activities of taxpayer-funded government bodies, including the school districts and the village, of which the police department is part. We try to report on these matters as thoroughly as possible. If we take out the names of individuals who were arrested, we start down a slippery slope of eliminating details from our reporting.
2. The identities of arrestees is part of the public record.
Their names are published elsewhere, whether in print or online, and available to anyone who files a Freedom of Information Act request. Redacting them from our police reports does not prevent them from becoming public knowledge.
3. The public has a right to know.
Citizens want to know if elected officials or other community leaders in town are accused of a crime. We could, as some have suggested, list the name only if the individual arrested is newsworthy. That, of course, is a highly subjective threshold. If the school principal is arrested for fraud, we think readers would want to know that. Is the same true for the PTO president? There are other instances in which the public might want to know whether a fellow resident is accused of a crime. What if the dad who belongs to your carpool is arrested for DUI with a blood-alcohol level of 1.6? Will you still feel your kids are safe with him behind the wheel?
4. Citizens expect more transparency from government these days, not less. A decision to pull the names from police beat would be a move toward less transparency. We heard a wonderful quote during our conversations: "Sunlight is a great disinfectant."
5. Running names in police beat is a deterrent. We've heard this from law enforcement and from residents and know it to be true.
We certainly understand that arrestees are merely accused of a crime and are innocent until proven guilty. We've added a note to that effect to the police beat page, along with information on how to contact us if charges are reduced or dismissed or the accused is found not guilty. As long as we have proper documentation, information will be updated online and in the next issue of the paper.
We know some people think police beat is nothing more than public shaming.
We disagree. Shaming someone is different than holding them accountable, even if they feel shame as a result. (Credit to shame researcher Brené Brown for that concept.)
Of all the comments that were shared with me on this topic, one from a reader advisory board member has really stuck with me. He said if we don't publish the names, he'll wonder what we are hiding.
That's not a question we want any reader asking.
- Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean. Readers can email her at [email protected]