Friday, January 08, 2010

Weighing benefits and detriments of US public information policies about crime

A couple of recent items related to making police information public caught my eye. First, from Matt Kelley at's Criminal Justice Blog:
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
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.
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?
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:
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.


Zack! said...

Two thoughts occurred to me: The first:
"a 21st-century police blotter could be a new revenue stream for flagging media organizations" --wouldn't that just incite more irresponsible reporting from people who were only in it for the bucks? Also, sometimes people are not guilty--in my small town, they print the crime, but not the name of the accused, in the "daily record." That seems to be information enough.
Second, I wonder if there isn't some sort of mix b/w the UK and US systems that would work. I agree that there are some things I like about our system, and I do expect transparency, but the UK's way does seem more respectful of the defendant (though it could easily get scary without SOME transparency).

Anonymous said...

A person is presumed innocent until proven guilty, arrest information should not be made public until a defendant is convicted.

I'm not that concerned with who has been arrested and poking into a persons private life as much as I am if the evidence is sufficient to convict.

On a closing note, another area of concern is in the area of public information as it relates to open meetings. I find it somewhat hypocritiical that we have an open meetings law in Texas as do most states, while on the federal level, as an example with the present closed door meetings on healthcare negotiations, we see a different way of thinking.

While I have no opinion as to healthcare, I do have an opinion as to the openness of the discussion of this subject and other areas that do not relate to some security issue.

Anonymous said...

Imagine a world in which persons like Nancy Grace are prohibited from commenting until after a conviction has been made. Better yet, we have a return to real journalism. Where the accused can get a trial with a jury that hasn't been poisoned. What a lovely thought.

Jennifer Peebles said...

Closing off public access to crime information or court records is a bad idea. I'm a journalist, but I'm not speaking from the point of view of a journalist here -- I'm speaking from the point of view of a citizen. As a citizen, I think I have every right to know if the guy who lives next door to me is out on bond after being charged with molesting his kids, or raping another neighbor, or shooting someone to death.

And a system in which the public only gets the information the cops and prosecutors want us to have is a very bad idea. I think many Grits for Breakfast readers are familiar with the problems with the Houston police crime lab, with the people convicted in Dallas (and elsewhere across the nation) who have been exonerated through DNA testing, and with the situation in Teneha, Texas, where nonwhite motorists had their money and vehicles seized even though they were never charged with any crime. Think about this: If you're backing the idea of cutting off the flow of information to the public about crime, then you're saying, "I implicitly trust every cop, every prosecutor, every police agency in America, so much so that I'm willing to totally cut off the flow of information that affords me the opportunity to second-guess these individuals' work and make up my own mind about whether their conduct was proper or whether justice was served."

I'm not willing to say that. And in a country where so many of us complain when we see a guilty person walk, or when we see someone wrongly charged or convicted of a crime we don't think they committed, I'd bet there are many other people out there like me.

I know that the public has many complaints about what they see in the press. (Heck, I'm a journalist and I have complaints about what I see in the press.) But the situation you're describing -- in which you consider reducing the flow of public information after looking at the media landscape and see huge swaths of sensationalism and inaccuracy, dotted by tiny oases of really good coverage -- won't only get revenge on crappy journalists. Yeah, you're cutting off information from them, but you're also cutting off information to yourself as well, and to everyone else. You'll regret it.

-- Jennifer Peebles
Texas Watchdog
Houston, TX

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm missing the point here. We are talking about letting LE have control of media information in the form of blogs and twitters, tight? So along with any accurate information released they still have the opportunity to release biased, inaccurate, or fabricated information just as they have done in other areas, like forensic evidence and etc. It just sounds like more "Big Brother" to me.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jennifer writes: "I think I have every right to know if the guy who lives next door to me is out on bond after being charged with molesting his kids, or raping another neighbor, or shooting someone to death."

What if your neighbor is falsely accused? How does that information help you? Are you looking for the right to assign a scarlet letter before anyone is convicted? Where do they go to get their sullied reputation back? And even if charges are true, what are you going to do with that information that you couldn't do post-conviction (e.g., criticize the judge during an election for bail decisions, etc.). Are you seeking fodder for vigilantism? How is that data being used by average people (or anybody)? Other than media hype and selling newspapers and TV ads, IMO it's mostly not.

Your examples of the Houston crime lab, Tenaha and the DNA exonerations all prove my point, not yours: All those are instances where publicly useful information didn't come out until post-conviction and the public policy interests you say you're championing were quite well served. There was NO use of the same information pre-conviction in those cases for public policy purposes.

As for the argument that this means we must trust the cops, we must do so now, anyway. Right now under Texas open records law, only "front page information" is available pre-conviction, not full background on the case. So you can only know if someone is accused, not any detail about the case unless a conviction is finally secured. If full information were available, you might have a stronger point but what's public before trial is actually quite limited and not useful for much besides media hype, to be honest.

Finally, nobody's looking to get "revenge on crappy journalists." It's not about revenge, it's about public policy outcomes, and I've yet to hear a single benefit from releasing accusatory information early in the process except the desire to prematurely assign a scarlet letter. If there are other good reasons, what are they?

@11:09, in Britain the cops can't release the information, either.

The Team said...

Hey Grits, Looks like we have ourselves a double-edged sword. Everyone is asking the right questions and providing the devil's advocate samples as well.

I'm personally thankful for being able to purchase the Houston Police Report, mugshot and Certified Case File showing that: 2-HC deputies, 4-HPD detectives (& their supervisors), my paid attorney (& his intern), 2-court reporters, the exhibit clerk, the ADA, the judge and a robbery victim, knowingly and willingly conspired to engage in a false arrest that resulted in a wrongful conviction. Combined, they read like a screenplay complete with the exact role each openly played. Faulty ID, planted firearm (fake evidence), tampering with Gov. docs., creating duplicate (fake) Gov. docs., and much more.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, two Governors, two Mayors, two HC Sheriffs, two HPD Chiefs, the FBI, one President, Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Texas Watchdog, MASS, 4-Innocence Projects, ACLU, etc… couldn't have cared less. At least I was able to show my mom and dad before they passed away.

It pissed me off to the point of creating my own project where I name names and invite others to come forward. But, I'm limiting it to closed criminal cases having absolutely nothing to do with DNA, Death Row, and those currently in custody. (The cases existing projects & the media ignore).

It’s obvious that every single person listed had no idea that I would be able to purchase this information and make it available to the public at large.
Team Leader
PROJECT: Not Guilty

Anonymous said...

I was just this morning putting together a presentation to give to a group of legally minded folks. The subject matter is the radically changing freely available public/legal information landscape as opposed to the traditionally used subscriber services. The unofficial twitter feed story is a perfect example of part of that. I happen to think that this is a good thing overall.

Most people have no idea how much information is out there about them or where it comes from. Perhaps if they did, we might make different decisions as a community about what records are publically available. I don't know.

But I think it is a question of when, not if, that debate is going to happen. Technology has made information sharing a much more equal game among its players. That dye has already been cast.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

12:32, can you elaborate on why you think these developments are a "good thing overall"? Please be specific in describing the supposed benefits - how is society better off compared to the UK model?

Fwiw I don't think this is an issue of changing technology and Twitter is just another delivery mechanism. As for the "traditionally used subscriber services," frankly this was an issue before even they arose to prominence. Pre-trial crime coverage has been sensationalistic and generally slanted in this country for generations - at least since the '30s - and all the same data has always been available at the county courthouse.

The real issue IMO is whether promoting limited, potentially prejudicial information without full context taints the process and creates needless collateral consequences when the case doesn't reach final conviction. Those aren't really technology driven issues.

Anonymous said...

I guess I was thinking in more general terms Grits. Data, is data, is data to me. Perhaps I have been sitting at the computer too long and have strayed a little off point.

The reason that I said I thought this was a good thing was that it helps make everyone fully aware of the information that is out there free or not and what somebody with a little know how can do with it, for good or ill.

I personally don't like the fact that I can go into a database in some states and pull up an arrest record (not conviction) for someone that happened 60 years ago, much less, ten minutes ago. I don't think that kind of thing serves the public good one iota. But I'm not sure that people are aware of it. I think they need to be.

Unknown said...

Sorry to see that my previous attempt at humour did not travel well across the Atlantic, but yes here in the United Kingdom reporting of cases is restricted under the Contempt of Court Act of 1981. This not only covers the standard news media, but to quote the act itself "The strict liability rule applies only in relation to publications, and for this purpose “publication” includes any speech, writing, [programme included in a cable programme service] or other communication in whatever form, which is addressed to the public at large or any section of the public." So I would be safe to assume that includes Twitter. Note also the teams "Strict Liability" That means it can be treated as a contempt of court regardless of whether or not it was the intent of the author to cause judicial interference. The act also covers attempting to solicit information from members of a jury as to how they came to their decision. One of the things I have a concern about is that in the States you often see journalists questioning jury members about their decisions. This could lead to a miscarriage of justice as the jury would be placed under pressure to make decisions that the media would approve of as opposed to the evidence that is presented.

Here are the Newspapers Society Guidelines for court reporting.

The BBC guidelines

And the Act itself

Restrictions are also covered by the Human Rights Act, such as article 6 (The right to trial by a fair and impartial judiciary)

Hope this helps