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Should you redact public records?

Police logs are basic to monitoring public records

Posted

   Is it necessary that the traffic ticket was reported in the newspaper again, a reader asks. The original citation was published two months ago.
   Publication of traffic citations probably generated the most calls during my tenure as editor. No 1, nobody likes being linked with a police report – whether it’s something as common as speeding or something that carries greater notoriety, such as a DWI. No. 2, the offenders get confused – and often angered – between the report of the actual ticket and then the report of the court disposition.
   We collected traffic reports regularly from the police and sheriff departments. The reports were part of the menu of public records that readers expected to see in our newspaper.
    We also believed the information was valuable to readers in terms of public safety. Is a neighborhood experiencing a rash of vandalism? Are DWIs on the rise? Should residents be on the lookout for another scam artist?
    Of all public records, traffic citations are among the most worrisome and embarrassing to violators. A youth is afraid that he’ll lose his job. A teacher is concerned how she can explain a speeding ticket to students. An elderly woman is flustered that this is her first-ever ticket. A coach dreads facing his players after getting ticketed for a DWI.
    Adding to the frustration of the accused is the lag time between when a ticket is issued and when the court disposes of the case. It can be weeks, or even months, depending on circumstances.
    We believed both parts of the reports were newsworthy. For example, police might break up a beer party and issue several tickets. The community should be apprised immediately. It’s equally important to follow a case to see what penalties are assessed.
     The accused are not the only ones to raise concerns over detailed police blotters. Editors are not of a similar mind-set either.
Consider this sampling from one newspaper’s police log: June 3 – theft, U.S. 160; May 28 – Found property, Country Center Drive. June 3 – Disturbing the peace, Hermosa Street. June 9 – Violation of custody, San Juan Street. No offense intended, but one must ask: What value is this report?
    Editors should recognize the role of police blotters. For example, there’s value to knowing that police conducted a Safe and Sober campaign and issued nine tickets for drunken driving in an evening. It’s noteworthy that a dozen underage youths were cited for illegal drinking at a graduation party.
    A great deal of the value of police logs is in the immediacy of the reports, especially if the incident prompts a community response. That would not be accomplished if newspapers reported only the adjudication of cases, which can take weeks or months.
    Newspapers certainly have a right to report public records. They also have an accompanying responsibility. Editors should be just as diligent to report charges that are dropped or changed through plea bargaining.
Readers frequently asked that a public record be withheld. It might be a marriage license, divorce proceeding or ambulance run, but tickets were most commonly requested.
    The reasons were varied, and some had more merit than others. Callers may be screaming or crying, loud or barely audible, embarrassed or obstinate. They might be calling for themselves or for a friend or family member.
    Reduce all these requests to the most basic term, and each person was seeking special treatment. Each was asking the impossible because our policy was that we could not pick and choose. If we printed one, we must print them all. To do otherwise would place us in the position of being judge and jury – to determine that one person’s plea was more worthy than another’s. And we’d never know all the facts.
    The simplest and fairest policy is to treat all public records as just that – public – in the belief that openness serves the greater number of people over the greatest period of time.
    Many individuals will disagree with such a policy, especially if their own names appear in a police log. But it’s a good bet they would be even more upset if newspapers selectively published names on the basis of who made the most convincing argument to an editor.