Arrests are public information, but exactly how public should they be? Twitter is testing the limits.
Every arrest in Denton, Texas, is chronicled on an unofficial twitter feed, built by an art student seeking to explore the possibilities opened by social platforms like twitter to share public information.
The mugshot at left shows a woman arrested yesterday for assault causing bodily injury. She hasn't been tried or convicted. Should her photo be on twitter (or on change.org)?
When Montgomery, Texas, District Attorney Brett Ligon threatened last week to post people arrested for driving under the influence on his twitter feed (he apparently hasn't started yet), some in the defense community balked at the idea of shaming people accused of crimes.
Law blogger Paul Kennedy wrote: My question is: should the DA dismiss a case against a motorist or should a motorist be acquitted by a jury of his peers, will (the DA) offer a public apology on Twitter as well?
I'm of two minds on this. Kennedy is right that district attorneys shouldn't pursue a shaming policy until they have a conviction. But at the same time I applaud the initiative of Brian Baugh, the University of North Texas student behind the Denton twitter blotter. He's not out to shame, he's out to make public information truly public.
I wrote in March that a 21st-century police blotter could be a new revenue stream for flagging media organizations. Baugh's twitter mashup takes us in that direction. If law enforcement agencies take up twitter blotters, they will need to include strong disclaimers that accounts posted are accusations and that nobody has been convicted. But initiatives like this aren't pure sensationalism -- they're one part sensational and one part public service.
We're obsessed with crime, and that's our problem, not one to be solved by the media or the police. If a news organization can use a crime map, an interactive live blotter or a mugshot gallery to drive revenue that pays for investigative reporting and arts coverage, then I'm all for it.On the other end of the spectrum, I was interested to read this account from a Baltimore Sun reporter on assignment in London about the differences between US and UK crime coverage, which largely stem from differences in access to information and the ability of reporters to publish details about cases pretrial:
Public information isn't always pretty, but it's public for a reason. The more transparent we make our law enforcement agencies, the more we can hold them accountable for injustice. Would you prefer an online public blotter or indefinite secret detention?
I'm working to get my feet set and haven't hit the streets yet, but in chatting with reporters here at the Independent, I'm already hearing some pretty significant differences in how reporters cover crime here.
In Baltimore, and the U.S. generally, an arrest in a criminal case marks a big moment in the reporting process. Authorities have to file charging documents with the court, requiring certain evidence to be laid out. With the suspect formally identified and charged, the digging then begins on trying to find out more about the case and the suspect.
Here, it is the opposite. Once an arrest is made, there is essentially a blackout on information. Reporters are prohibited by the government from publishing information about the case, particularly anything about the defendant, out of concern that it will influence potential jurors.
Doing so runs the risks of fines and contempt of court charges. If a reporter gets major information on a case, but an arrest is made while they're putting their article together, they will have to sit on that info until the case has been adjudicated.
Of course, in America, our courts will call hundreds of people if necessary to find 12 who have not heard about the case, and they are instructed by the judge not to seek out information in newspapers or on TV during the proceedings. Reporters here couldn't believe what I was telling them about our access to court records and our ability to write about a case after arrest, and leading up to and during a trial. One expressed reservations that the media accounts would indeed sway a jury unfairly.
Another big difference is that police scanners, a fixture in U.S. newsrooms, aren't a factor here. They wait to hear from police about major crimes, and alerts can sometimes take days, reporters said. And remember, because of the contempt of court issues, if they find out about a crime after an arrest is made, they're essentially powerless to do any meaningful reporting because of the jury bias issues.I was fascinated to read this account of UK crime reporting because their approach challenges some of my own beliefs that I've admittedly seldom adequately questioned.
On one hand, I value public information and grew up with a system where most court information is public; I've grown comfortable (complacent?) with that system, I'll admit, and it's been a long time since I've seriously considered my own first-order assumptions on that topic. On the other hand, much US crime coverage is quite poor, sensationalistic, frequently misleading, one-sided, and often flat-out counterproductive. In Texas, there are at most half a dozen news reporters who I consider to produce high-quality crime beat coverage, and most of the rest often do more harm than good. That's not a great ratio.
Is releasing limited information resulting in half-assed coverage hyping sensationalist spin slanted heavily toward police sources better than a situation where the release of information is delayed until after disposition of the case, the way we do, for example, with police officer disciplinary cases? I'd have to know more about when, how and what information is released in the UK to form an opinion.
There was a time years ago when I'd have automatically said the US approach is better, but after many years traveling around this block I'm no longer 100% confident that the way we handle information about criminal charges in the United States always serves the interests of justice. The whole "trial by media" phenomenon has gotten wildly out of hand and there don't seem to be many good solutions to the problem that I can see short of restricting information like they do in the UK.