The Riley County Police Department has stopped listing the names of crime victims in the information it routinely releases to the public.
That’s not consistent with the spirit of Kansas law, and we at The Mercury are going to continue to dig for the information you have a right to, every day.
New police director Dennis Butler reversed the previous policy, which had been in place for decades. Under the previous policy, the RCPD made public the reports of arrests, property crimes and crimes against persons. Those reports included the name of the person reporting the crime. All of that information is a matter of public record under Kansas law, meaning citizens have a right to it.
The Mercury’s policy has been to report all arrests, citations involving alcohol or drugs, and to report crimes against persons and property crimes where the loss exceeds a certain amount. We do not report the names of victims of sexual crimes, unless the victim wants to be public or if it turns out that the supposed victim actually committed perjury.
This is occasionally very difficult territory for us. Crime victims have done nothing wrong, and we recognize that being listed in the paper as the victim of certain crimes can be awkward or embarrassing. Everyone can understand that.
But real crimes happen to real people, and part of the job of reporting news is telling uncomfortable truths. This is why we’ve had the policy we’ve had. The Kansas public records law recognizes this; it classifies victims’ names as public information.
The reality is that the identity of a victim is part of the story of any crime. Sometimes, the name of the victim makes a particular crime particularly newsworthy, and not just because of that person’s celebrity. Police say that they will provide victim information when they think it’s important as part of the story. But we don’t think it’s a good idea to let the law enforcement arm of the government start to decide what information you can get. What’s next: Do you want the mayor to edit the reporting on what the City Commission is up to?
Director Butler says that some people have told him they don’t report crimes to police because they don’t want to see their names appear in The Mercury. He says this is particularly a problem in the north end of Riley County; he says he’s trying to counteract the long-held belief that police don’t pay enough attention to that area.
We understand and sympathize, and we believe Director Butler is well-intended.
But because the law requires disclosing the identity of the person reporting the crime, we will continue to work to provide that to you. So far, police are mostly making it more difficult and cumbersome to do so — when we ask for the names, it can take them long enough that we have to publish the item the next day. To a degree, this is all just an inconvenience and a delay for everyone involved.
The larger issue is this: The spirit of Kansas law is to make information available to the public. The law enforcement arm of the government is currently not prioritizing that, and that’s just not right.