The Henry County Police Department has recently begun redacting victim and witness information from certain initial incident reports. And while we’re all about protecting victims and witnesses (for obvious reasons), we also believe that’s a huge problem. Here’s why:
According to numerous legal minds much smarter than myself, the Georgia Open Records Act does not give any law enforcement agency (or anyone, for that matter) the legal authority to redact any information, other than the few exceptions such as social security numbers and date/month of birth, from initial incident reports. It’s been well established that pretty much everything in these reports, which often lay the foundation for news stories, is a matter of public record.
But some agencies, such as the Henry County Police Department, take the liberty of redacting information like victim names, and the names of potential witnesses from those reports.
When asked why, the HCPD public information officer’s response was something that concerned me: They do it to protect the victims. Also, he said, “Sue us.”
Superficially, this seems like a noble cause. Victims of a crime are in a vulnerable position (If they’ve been robbed, maybe they don’t want the general public to know they keep jewelry and cash in their closet.) But is it really the police department’s job to protect them from the news media?
Whether or not their identities are released, victims of sex crimes are almost never identified in news stories (although I’ve seen some amazing journalism come out of cases where the victim has chosen to speak out against such crimes, and this kind of story-telling is on the rise).
Victims of other crimes, however, are typically identified by news agencies on a case-by-case basis. For example, the public might be more interested in knowing the name of a homicide victim than a clerk at a store that’s been robbed.
So how does HCPD differentiate between victims who don’t want to be identified and those who don’t mind? The short answer is I have no idea. I’m not even sure the PIO knows.
But what I do know is that the decision of whether to name a victim of a non-violent, non-sexual crime is not only a tough choice— it’s an editorial choice.
Editorial decisions should be left up to the media, not police agencies. Which also means we, as the media who decides whether to print those individuals’ names, should be held responsible. Why should the police department feel responsible for what we do? The short answer is they shouldn’t.
By redacting certain information from these usually-public reports, the police department is overstepping its boundaries. This type of activity — effectively preventing the news outlet from publishing certain information — should be labeled as censorship, and nothing less.