Here’s what seems like an easy question for you: Should innocent victims of crimes be forced to endure embarrassment by seeing their names printed in the newspaper?
Seems like the correct answer is no, right?
Here’s the same question, put another way: Should the government be allowed to keep secret the identities of people who are accusing other citizens of breaking the law?
Easy. Of course not.
Trouble is, both things can’t be right.
New Riley County Police Department Director Dennis Butler doesn’t want to release those names — victims or reporting parties, who are often the same — to The Mercury because he doesn’t want us to publish them. He says doing so discourages people from reporting crime, and causes emotional distress to those who see their names in the paper.
He has one major problem: The names of victims of crimes are a matter of public record, as defined by state law. That makes good sense, if you think about it. When a person files a report with the police, saying that somebody else violated the law and that they were victimized, the identity of that person should not be kept secret. How would you like it if somebody anonymously accused you of stealing their car?
That’s among the reasons why The Mercury has routinely published the identities of the people reporting crimes. We make exceptions in the case of rape and sexual crimes.
We have also in the past gone along with occasional requests by police to not identify a person reporting a crime — for instance, if a killer is still on the loose and publishing the name could reasonably be judged to put the person in immediate danger.
We acknowledge that the other way of looking at all of this — from the point of view of the victim and his or her family — is understandable. We are all capable of empathy.
Both ways of framing the question are legitimate. Because we’re in the business of providing important information to our subscribers, we come down on the side of publishing more information, rather than less.
Part of our job, unfortunately, is telling our subscribers about the bad things that happen to real people. We also tell lots of good things that happen to people, by the way.
But without being specific, we’re not doing an adequate job of holding up the mirror for the community to look at itself.
Rather than routinely and quickly giving us that information when a police report is filed — as the department has done for decades — Mr. Butler is asking us to submit an official written request on every single case.
He’s asking us to physically travel to the police department to pick up a copy of a record, and to pay a fee to obtain it.
This is all done in the interest of preventing us from publishing the information.
But since we’re going to eventually get the information and publish it, it’s not particularly clear what that policy will ultimately accomplish, other than making it more cumbersome for us, for you, and for employees in his department.
But that’s what we’re going to have to do, because our job is to serve your information needs.
It also means we will have to write a story about a report of a crime, and then follow that story the next day or two with the name of the person reporting the crime.
That follow-up story will be predominantly about the identify of the victim, since that will be the new information that we’ll be reporting. Does that really accomplish anything productive?