Editorial: The purpose of police reports

First of a series debating whether or not newspapers should publish police reports

The Platteville Police Department has been very helpful letting the “Exponent” access incident reports, and for that I am thankful. One of the most prominent arguments against police reports in our paper seems to be that they feel a lot like public humiliation. To a certain extent, I agree. However, I do not think that they should be fully eliminated from the press. 

Here in Platteville, the police reports are a little bit different than they are in bigger cities. For example, what we often think of as “the big city,” New York, New York, doesn’t seem to have a specific section of their paper dedicated to a list of incident reports. Rather, their reporters have to request access to specific police reports, and then write short articles on the incidents that they feel stand out in relation to the safety and civil rights of the general community. 

According to UC-Berkeley’s Advanced Media Institute, “Police departments vary widely in how they respond to reporters’ requests for arrest or crime reports. Some will routinely provide the reports but with sensitive information edited out. Some will provide most reports but withhold those that concern sensitive pending cases. Some will decline to release any police reports.” In other words, some departments make it easier than others. 

For instance, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officially states on their website, “If you want to request a copy of a crime report, you must mail your written request to Records and Identification (R&I) Division. You can only receive a crime report if you are an authorized person such as the victim, the victim’s representative, or as provided in Section 6254 of the Government Code.”

This may seem logical, and in terms of hypotheticals, it makes sense that you wouldn’t want just anyone to be able to share the name of someone who reported domestic violence, per se. That could put the victim in a dangerous situation, not to mention the embarrassment that it might cause someone who is already traumatized. 

That being said, there are situations that the general community deserves and needs to know about. My question regarding these kinds of situations is this: who are we protecting? 

I’m not saying that newspapers should advertise the names of victims; that would be irresponsible of the reporter. However, drawing attention to injustice in our society is, in my opinion, one of the largest goals of newswriting and media. It is our responsibility to bring instances of injustice to light. 

One tragic example of the importance of police reports is a developing story from Racine, Wisconsin. The local newspaper, “The Journal Times”, uncovered an extremely necessary news story, but only through the police incident reports. According to advocate.com, “A police report, which does not give the date of the attack, says [three attackers] mocked [the victim] for his sexual orientation and then began hitting him, causing injuries to his face, jaw, left arm and left knee.” 

This incident, an anti-LGBTQ hate crime, would have slipped under the radar except that a publicly available police report was noticed by a local newspaper. The story about this incident did important work without naming the victim and putting them in more danger. It brought attention to a hate crime that was otherwise not being discussed. Without the police reports, it may never have made it into the public eye. This is why I ask, who is protected when these reports are made difficult to find? 

I can understand, to a certain extent, that bigger cities need to keep some sort of order. However, it is not okay to try to cover these things up for the sake of “keeping the peace.” These incidents prove that there is no sense of “peace” to begin with, only the willingness to turn a blind eye. 

Police reports can be an important avenue for informing the public, specifically those on campus, of dangerous situations. While we don’t get a lot of significant crimes happening around here, we need to keep up that line of communication with the public just in case there is a time when we do.