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by Peter Moskos

March 1, 2009

Reporting the Police and Naming Names

David Simon, of The Wire, Homicide, and The Corner fame, has written a very powerful article in the Washington Post.

The Baltimore Police stopped releasing the names of officers involved in police-involved shootings. Personally, I like reading the names in the paper to see if it's anybody I know. Sure I could call up a friend and find out. But usually I don't. Odd are I won't know the officer.

I also know that if I had been involved in a police-involved shooting, I wouldn't want my name released. I'd have plenty to worry about without my name in the papers. Reporters love presenting "both" sides of the story. But for most police-involved shootings, there is no "other" side. Often, as hard as it is for some to believe, the police are simply telling the truth.

I wouldn't want to read about the bastard's mother saying what an angel her son was, at least since the last time he got out of jail for shooting somebody. I wouldn't want to read about "witnesses" (who weren't there) say how that white officer shot him in the back for no reason at all. No, I shot him because the S.O.B. was trying to kill me.

Yet names should be released. If nothing else, this policy isn't fair to officers who names are released. It leads one to think they're guilty. The department is being sued by one of them.

But what it comes down to for me is that deep down I strongly believe in the press (mistakes and all). My uncle was a newspaper editor before I was a cop. Before I ever held a gun I was raising hell writing for the Evanstonian, my high-school newspaper. You might believe in the Second Amendment; I believe in the First.

Freedom of the Press is listed in the First Amendment for a reason. As a free country, we need a free press. In a free society, police should be held accountable to the public. What's the alternative?

Read Simon's piece. He's a good writer. It'll make you think. And that good.
In an American city, a police officer with the authority to take human life can now do so in the shadows, while his higher-ups can claim that this is necessary not to avoid public accountability, but to mitigate against a nonexistent wave of threats. And the last remaining daily newspaper in town no longer has the manpower, the expertise or the institutional memory to challenge any of it.
Part of the reason this country is in such a mess right now is because not enough people know what's going on. They don't read newspapers. They don't know the facts. They're ignorant.

Talk radio and the morning zoo is not a recipe for a well-reasoned worldview. Even the best TV news is horrible (except for the NewsHour). Between the right blaming "The Media" for almost everything (the answer to media bias is more media) and the economic realities killing the newspaper business, I worry. A less powerful press is not good for our country or our freedom.


lynn said...

A friend and I were just discussing the demise of the daily paper the other day when the Rocky Mountain News folded. David Simon's article was much scarier than anything we were contemplating. The public has a right to know when any public servant (cop, teacher, whoever) does something to hurt the public trust. As a teacher myself, I can imagine that people wouldn't want the teachers charged with sexual associations with students to be allowed to have their names withheld from news reports.

I realize that there are always people who will be falsely accused, but that is what our courts are for. Police and school administration should not be the decision makers.

PCM said...

But there is assumption that once something is in the papers there's at least a grain of truth to it.

Without further proof, I don't think my name should be in the papers if a student said I did something (and I didn't!)

Charged with a crime is one thing, but just accused? Should your name be in the paper--and with a negative light--for doing your job correctly? That's what police often have to deal with.

lynn said...

While you're correct that once something is published the full truth may be difficult to discover, should we really go back to the days when things like this were swept under the rug?

PCM said...

No. I think names should be in the paper.

I'm just saying I understand why hard working men and women who risk their lives at work don't want the media to portray them as trigger-happy racists.

But I also wish that more police would see that in the long run it's good for police to be open to the prying eyes of outsiders. That's how things change. And sometimes, just sometimes, change is good.

buzoncrime said...

Peter---We've been told down here that the New York City Police also don't release the names of officers who kill; is this true, to your knowledge? (Also, the FBI supposedly doesn't).

Simon used to be one of the Baltimore Police's biggest supporters--not necessarily the brass. And it's a real downer to see him in the Baltimore City Paper calling the decision to not name "cowardly"--as well as writing the piece in the WashingtonPost.com yesterday.

Further, about a couple of years ago, the Baltimore County Police quietly announced that they would only be releasing first names of officers who kill. Hardly a ripple in the press about it.