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Publishing Police Reports

Hopatcong is a relatively small borough in the southeast corner of the northwest corner of the State of New Jersey, that is, in mountainous Sussex County framed by the Delaware River on the west and the New York State border on the north, the borough being positioned about as far from both of those landmarks as possible while being in the county.  It is famed for the lake which bears its name; it is of late newsworthy for an entirely different reason.  It created a social media page, and its police department used it to publish the names of those arrested and charged with various crimes, and some people believe this to have been a severe violation of privacy.

Publishing Police Reports

In one sense, this is not new or revolutionary.  The "police blotter" has long been a standard beat in the news world; arrests are a matter of public record.  In rural Salem County at the other end of the state a few decades back, the county newspaper routinely reported activity by all of the half dozen local police departments, from stolen bicycle reports to disorderly persons arrests, and the local radio station read these on the air.  This is in one sense just a contemporary approach to the same reporting, putting it in the medium which is overtaking those more traditional information sources as they in their times overtook their predecessors.  (How many still get news from town criers, or learned about recent election results from a minstrel singing in the square?)  It is a bit faster, and it is less subject to editorial review and so more apt to carry a mistake.  Is it, though, different in kind from the media it is replacing?

There is a difference, and it is one that mattered significantly in Hopatcong.  The new medium is interactive:  the reader can comment.  Certainly that happened with newspapers, as letters to the editors were received and published; but such letters went through editorial hands, and someone made a decision whether to publish a letter, either in part or in whole.  Today those responses are released in real time without review, and that is where Hopatcong's police hit their problem.

The context of the problem is that a girl was allegedly raped, and although the alleged rapist was technically an adult the girl in the matter was a minor.  Therefore the police did not give her name, only the name of her assailant.  He cannot really claim that his rights have been violated, as his arrest is a matter of public record; but it was not long before residents of Hopatcong had identified the name of the victim and posted it to the public space in response to the police report.  Information about the case from those who knew, and possibly from those who only surmised, was soon readily available on the site.  The now identified girl had her privacy violated, not by the police but by the townfolk, eager to know the details of this scandalous crime.

It is perhaps a small matter that this rampant discussion of the case will have made it more difficult to empanel an impartial jury of the peers of the defendant; that is a problem often addressed by such means as change of venue or importing jurors from another jurisdiction, and really the news of local communities is not usually much interest to many outside those communities.  It is to some degree questionable whether such news is always of interest within the communities themselves.  Yet questions abound here.  What if the accused had also been a minor, indeed what if the accused had been a minor and the victim not?  If the victim's name were published and soon the name of the accused--or even of several suspects thought to be the accused in the minds of their friends--followed through public discussion, that would have been a more serious violation of the privacy of a juvenile defendant.

It may be an impossible problem to resolve, though.  We want our law enforcement agencies to be as transparent as possible without compromising their ability to function, and that means that the public must be able to know of arrests, charges, and to some degree investigations and complaints, to be able to judge whether the police are acting appropriately.  We also want to protect victims, and minors, and those who are both, from excessive publicity, and to avoid compromising the ability of our courts to bring justice in these cases.  People are going to talk, and they are going to talk about scandalous news such as crimes committed in their neighborhoods.  Modern technology makes it possible for these people to talk more freely, more swiftly, and with more others who might have more information.  We have created an electronic gossip network, and there is no way to put the djinni back in the bottle.

Meanwhile, the police perhaps should consider whether it is possible to publish their reports without enabling discussion on their site.  Let people read the official reports; let them take their conversations and gossip elsewhere.

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