Withholding crime details harmful to public welfare
The state's Criminal Justice Information Center Commission would significantly reduce the public's access to information contained in police reports under guidelines proposed this week.
The changes would remove the victim's name, the street address where the incident took place and the narrative that describes the incident from the portion of the police report that is currently available to the public.
The changes, if adopted, would seriously erode citizens' ability to know what is happening in their neighborhoods. They would also desensitize the public to crime and reduce incident reports to a mere set of statistics. This would invite abuse by agencies and individuals responsible for law enforcement.
Police reports published in newspapers offer information valuable to the public. Readers become more cautious about their property and mindful of suspicious behavior in their neighborhoods when they read that a rash of thefts has victimized their neighbors.
Such reporting also lets the public know that police officers are doing their jobs.
By removing name and location elements from the public's view, the changes would reduce crime reporting to statistical analysis, such as: thefts, 12; rapes, 2; homicides, 1.
Would that make the public feel safe or help the victims? Such reporting raises more questions than it answers.
An incident at Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church near Eva, where a bookkeeper stole more than $17,000 in church funds in 2003, is an example. The Morgan County Sheriff's Office withheld the incident report at the request of church members who "wanted to protect the family."
Until Rebecca Stinson Bennett pleaded guilty to embezzlement this week, there was no public record of the theft. Only rumor.
"There has been so much talk of the church since then, it might help people in the community to know she's pleaded guilty," said interim Pastor William Teague in Wednesday's DAILY.
The public grants the news media trust to keep it informed about important matters that affect people's everyday lives and, at times, their safety. We cherish that public trust and do all we can to make sure we neither abuse nor neglect our responsibility.
The commission is scheduled to vote on the proposed changes Jan. 19 after a public comment period. The public may submit comments to ACJIC at 770 Washington Ave., Suite 350, Montgomery AL 36130.