Should PDs identify people charged with minor crimes?

Reflecting on the decision of the Associated Press to no longer name people charged with minor crimes

This summer, one of the largest newsgathering organizations in the world reexamined its news policies and like so many organizations in 2020 and 2021, it pivoted. So where does the decision of the Associated Press (AP) to no longer name people charged with minor crimes leave police public information officers (PIOs) and, in some smaller departments, police chiefs who also serve as PIOs?

Associated Press Vice President for Standards, John Daniszewski, explained the decision in the AP blog:

Usually, we don’t follow up with coverage about the outcome of the cases. We may not know if the charges were later dropped or reduced, as they often are, or if the suspect was later acquitted. These minor stories, which only cover an arrest, have long lives on the internet. AP’s broad distribution network can make it difficult for the suspects named in such items to later gain employment or just move on in their lives."

If the media is sharing less, then should police departments follow suit? In short, no. The calls for law enforcement agencies to step up their public information sharing echo loud and clear across the country. People want facts from police departments, and they want them yesterday.

Law enforcement leaders across the nation have expanded their information footprint exponentially, even in just a relatively short period of time. In the last decade, not only have departments dramatically increased the amount of information they share with the traditional media, but now you’d be hard-pressed to find any police department not sharing its news on at least one social media platform.

Mount Dora, Florida Police Chief Brett Meade just celebrated his one-year anniversary with the agency. He says the department has identified 10 priorities, of which social media is one. Regarding the AP’s move, he said in a phone interview, “I don’t have an issue with it. It doesn’t mean that the law enforcement organization won’t release the information. It’s up to the media to make the call. If you arrest an individual for vandalism, say spray painting or something like that, and you want the public to be aware of that to generate leads for other similar crimes, then you might want that name out there.”

Kristy Roschke, Ph.D., is the managing director of the News Co/Lab at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. In an interview, she shared, “Two decades ago, a suspect’s name might appear in the local newspaper’s crime blotter. Everyone could soon forget that name and it would essentially be a done deal. Today, due to the digital footprint of media coverage and even that of law enforcement coverage, there is a newfound responsibility to consider what to, and what not to publish.”

Roschke goes on to say that the Associated Press isn’t the first to not name these people, and predicts they won’t be the last. She shares other media organizations who have made similar steps to reimagine their crime coverage:

The Associated Press’ decision may not affect police department information sharing, but it certainly provides PIOs and police leaders the opportunity to reexamine their existing media/public information policies and have some thoughtful conversations regarding what an agency will and won’t release to the public. 

NEXT: State your case: Should agencies stop distributing mug shots?

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