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Should Crime Watch list arrests even if charges aren’t filed?

Friday, February 15, 2008 | 1:36 p.m. CST; updated 8:41 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Tom Warhover is the Columbia Missourian's executive editor for innovation.

Dear Reader:

The introduction to Crime Watch on ColumbiaMissourian.com has been changed to better reflect what you shouldn’t read into an arrest report.

It now says: “The following incidents were listed in the Columbia Police Department’s blotter, available in their offices. The people named in Crime Watch have not necessarily been formally charged and/or been convicted of the offense(s) listed. To research the outcome of an arrest, go to the State of Missouri’s court database, Case.net, and search in the 13th Judicial Circuit.”

For instance: Basketball players Stefhon Hannah and Jason Horton were arrested “on suspicion of third-degree assault” in connection with a fight outside the Athena Night Club earlier this month. Neither has been charged. The prosecutor’s office could charge the MU students with the assault or with a lesser charge. It could decide not to charge them at all.

The police blotter is part of the public record. The documents are available for viewing by you or me or anyone. The Missourian has run blotter information for years.

Search engines have redefined the scope of the word “public.” What once was published in print is now available in a Google search by anyone across the globe and for as long as anyone knows. Does that change a newspaper’s moral obligations? If a person receives a lesser charge, should the blotter information be removed? What if no charges are filed?

Missourian editors talked about those questions last week. There was agreement that a newspaper’s job is to publish the information. The decision wasn’t made lightly; most of the people in the room could imagine the impact if their friends or family were listed.

Some of the reasons given:

  • The arrest happened. It’s fact, regardless of what occurs later.
  • Charges can be dropped or made less severe for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s because there isn’t enough evidence to support a charge. Sometimes there is a bit of deal making in exchange for information or testimony.
  • The Crime Watch database is a community-reporting tool that allows citizens to see trends over time and around town. Selectively removing reports affects the integrity of the entire report.

I have been told that technology exists to prevent Google or Yahoo from finding a certain item. If a charge isn’t made for a certain amount of time, should the newspaper block a search?

The answer among editors was less certain. I want to revisit the question. Your input would be appreciated.

In general, rather than remove information from the public eye, we need to understand a fuller story. In coming months you will see more explanation about how the judicial process works and how you can make your own judgments about safety in Our Fair City.

Tom


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Comments

Tom Warhover February 17, 2008 | 10:37 a.m.

I wrote my letter on Thursday -- the Missourian print edition deadline is Friday morning. Since then, the MU basketball players have been charged by the prosecutor's office. Look in the sports section for the details.

(Report Comment)
Matt Wynn February 19, 2008 | 2:11 p.m.

I don't think there's any reason to remove it, limit it from search engines, etc.

What makes the Web any more/less of a roadblock than a microfiche? The rules haven't changed. If blotter information is worthwhile, then it's worthwhile. No expiration date necessary.

(Report Comment)

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