Last week, Stephanie Johnson made a thoughtful case for why the “Exponent” includes police reports and, more generally, the role of newspapers in reporting on crime for the good of a local community. Simultaneously, an Exponent Facebook poll asked for public comment on the publication of police reports. Respondents support publishing police reports by a nearly 75-point margin, though Facebook polls more reliably measure the public delight in spectacle and anonymous trolling than they offer reliable data. As for the editorial itself, it offered compelling reasons for its position, highlighted by an anti-gay incident in Racine that only made the news because local journalists used police reports to document it. Nonetheless, I still disagree with publishing police reports for the following reasons.
First, our weekly police reports usually do not uncover significant crimes. They record traffic stops and alcohol violations, sometimes including incidents of public urination, which no doubt delights readers looking for gossip. However, anyone who follows the police scanner, including the public release of information on the Platteville Police Department Facebook page, knows that the citations in police reports are not even half of the work of local law enforcement. Our published reports do not include domestic disturbances nor welfare checks, and when those are reported on the scanner, names and other identifying information are intentionally omitted, whereas our published version in the newspaper includes names, ages, and hometowns.
Second, the “Exponent” is not a tabloid, nor a court of law. Publishing names for only minor citations serves the purpose of publicly shaming the people cited for supposedly doing wrong, but we do not cover the trial dates for any of these citations nor follow up on whether the police were right in issuing the citations. We only cite the accusation, like a supermarket tabloid, without the due diligence of reporting on the outcome of each citation through a judicial process afforded to all citizens. A key point of law in this country is that one is innocent until proven guilty; also, we claim justice is blind. Therefore, public shaming based only on citations without the full reporting on due process and outcomes undermines principles ensconced in the same document that also guarantees rights to free speech and a free press, which we assume might justify our publication of the reports in the first place.
Third, far too much evidence suggests that police officers are fallible individuals working in a system that does not punish racial profiling or other problematic policing practices. A citation may report that a driver was speeding, but it does not report that the police officer might have only pulled the driver over for being black or young or driving a red sports car or any number of other prejudicial reasons. By publishing the report as submitted by the police officer who issued the citation and posted by the police department, we are simply making appear as objective news the nuances of law enforcement that might not be as pure nor as objective as our police reports make them appear to be.
Fourth, despite screeds decrying American carnage and our propensity for watching poorly-written detective shows and courtroom dramas that emphasize the audacity and profundity of American crime, actual data suggests that we are far from an apogee of criminality in this country, with the exception of a marked increase in white supremacy and acts of violence perpetuated against women and minorities. Publishing weekly police reports under the auspices that they reveal necessary information about public safety in a community does more to reiterate the impression that we are a society plagued by crime than it does to remind us that a rolling stop at a stop sign is not evidence of the decline of a country in need of being made great again.
Publishing police reports mostly serves to remind people that we have police officers who issue citations, which more than a few theorists would likely relate more to our self-constructed panopticons than to a social good. We could use the space and ink to better ends.
What do you think? Be sure to take the online poll on our Facebook page