Withholding crime info: good reasons, bad practice

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The road to secrecy, like the road to hell, is paved with good intentions.

Though some in government undoubtedly have sinister motives for denying access to information, most are simply oblivious to the importance of transparency in government. They therefore unwittingly sacrifice openness to advance any number of other, more popular causes.

Consider, for example, the recent announcements of the police departments in Phoenix and in Savannah, Ga. In Phoenix, the department announced it no longer would release the names of victims, birth dates of criminal suspects and victims and addresses where crimes occurred. In Savannah, the department announced it no longer would make its compilation of daily incident reports available for review.

Both departments’ announcements reversed long-standing policies of providing thorough and accurate information about crimes to the public.  And in both cases, the departments claim their decisions are necessary to achieve other legitimate goals.

In Phoenix, the goal is the prevention of identity theft.  According to attorneys for the department and the city, the redaction of names, birth dates and addresses from police records is required by a state statute that obligates government to secure citizens from identify theft.

In Savannah, the goal is a Web-based, paperless reporting system. As part of converting to that system, officials stopped providing the daily incident reports, which had been made available in paper form.  Those reports, the officials said, will be replaced by a synopsis of all reports, which will be available on the department’s Web site in four to six months. In the meantime, the department posts on the site abbreviated versions of reports the department deems significant. Copies of specific reports are available upon request.

No one, of course, wants to encourage identity theft, and most see the value in electronic records. Achieving these goals, however, need not and should not increase government secrecy.

Phoenix officials, for example, could not point to any incident of identity theft from police records, any lawsuit against the department for disseminating private information or even any complaint from a resident about the nature of information disclosed in the reports.

Similarly, Savannah officials so far have not explained why the reports cannot be made available in electronic form after the conversion or why the paper reports cannot be provided until the Web site is ready.

Moreover, both departments are on shaky legal ground. Arizona state records ombudsman Elizabeth Hill told the Phoenix New Times that Phoenix’s new policy probably runs counter to Arizona’s open-records law. Journalists in Savannah have a similar concern and, at the request of the Savannah Morning News, the Georgia attorney general’s office is investigating the matter in the hopes of mediating an end to the dispute. Amazingly, it appears that officials in both departments proceeded toward their goals with little awareness or concern about whether their actions violated laws that guaranteed public access to this information.

While it would be sufficient if the news media’s objections to these new policies were based solely on principle, the objections are based in significant part on practical problems the policies pose.

Most crime reporters, for example, want to identify criminal suspects by name, birth date and some form of address. Doing so prevents countless cases of mistaken identity, especially in a large metropolitan area in which many people share the same name. Under Phoenix’s new policy, however, identifications will be limited to name, race and age.

The new Savannah restrictions are even more problematic, as they allow the department to pick and choose which crimes and incidents it reports. In just the month during which the new policy has been in place, the department chose not to disclose the death of a man in police custody. Had the Morning News not received an anonymous tip regarding this death, it likely would have missed the story entirely.

The Savannah policy of providing specific reports upon request fails to address this problem, as it essentially requires a reporter to request something before he or she knows it exists.

The new policies in Phoenix and Savannah are only the most recent examples of how seemingly good intentions chip away at openness and increase secrecy.  As court records are digitized, information that previously was available is removed, for fear that digital records are more easily searched and retrieved. Elevated concerns about security and privacy lead to more denials of freedom of information act requests. E-mailing that makes the work of public bodies more efficient also allows more of that work to be done out of the public eye.

Concerns about these results, of course, do not require that we attack technology or ignore interests in personal privacy. Rather, the challenge — as it always has been — is to remind the public and public officials continually that openness in government is essential to democracy and that it is most easily lost when it is taken for granted.

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