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Panel votes to make ID of crime victims secret

MONTGOMERY (AP) — A state commission approved a move Thursday to conceal the identity of crime victims from the public in Alabama, a major change that an open government advocate called a "huge step" backward but supporters said was needed to help protect the innocent.

Members of the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center Commission voted to move most information that could identify a crime victim from the front page of police report forms — which is routinely available to the public — to the back page, which is confidential.

Russell County Sheriff Tommy Boswell said the change was needed because most anyone with a computer can find a crime victim using the information currently available to the public: names, addresses, birth dates and Social Security numbers.

"The world has changed in the 20 years since we last did this," said Boswell, the commission chairman.

Fayette County District Attorney Chris McCool, who also supported the change, said no one chooses to be a crime victim and many people don't want their identities made public when they are victimized.

"I have a real concern that the victim's privacy be protected," said McCool, speaking on behalf of the Alabama District Attorneys Association.

The only dissenting vote came from Mike Coppage, director of the Alabama Department of Public Safety. Coppage said he feared hiding the names of crime victims would depersonalize crime by making its victims anonymous.

The head of a group that opposes government secrecy criticized the decision.

"It's just a huge step backward in terms of government openness," said Dale Harrison, chairman of the Alabama Center for Open Government.

The Alabama Press Association, a trade group for newspapers, also opposed the change. Executive director Felicia Mason said the move would make it more difficult for papers to report on crime in their communities.

To help ease such worries, the commission also approved an addition to a statewide police handbook stating that police "have historically released victim names and telephone numbers to credentialed members of the news media." The change "is not intended to alter that practice," the new handbook states.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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