Rick Carroll: Above the Fold
January 14, 2013
A local resident recently offered me cash to remove a name from our newspaper’s online version of the police blotter, a weekly recap of arrests made in Aspen. I declined, but not before the requester contended that the blotter subject had a unique name and with one quick Google search, anybody could learn about this person’s alleged misdeed.
Rarely a week goes by without someone emailing or calling the offices of The Aspen Times, begging that we remove their names from the police blotter on our website. Many of these people just don’t want to acknowledge their mistakes – or see them acknowledged. Others, however, feel it’s unjust to have a black mark against them online if it turns out they were wrongfully arrested or the charges against them were ultimately dropped.
In many cases, the reasoning is not farfetched.
Every Thursday, the Aspen Police Department provides the city’s two daily newspapers with a recap of the week’s arrests. The papers publish the blotters on Fridays, a day some people – those bold-named, alleged transgressors – wished they had just stayed in bed.
But making a newspaper’s arrest blotter isn’t just a one-day bout with humiliation. It can last for a lifetime.
In the Internet age, these alleged offenses, including the petty ones, hold permanent residence on the Web and can be costly for the blotter subjects. Anybody – employers, a university’s admissions department or a potential father in-law – is just a click away from digging up police-blotter dirt. And for the guy from Buffalo who was busted five years ago with a one-hitter at an Aspen bar, it can derail his career, his education or even a relationship.
The local court system has shown leniency with defendants of lighter crimes, often suspending sentences for those who took the liberty to pee in the alley in the wee hours of the morning. Stay clean for a year, and that embarrassing incident can sometimes be wiped from your record. The same goes for felonies, at least if the defendant had a clean history before getting in trouble. Attorneys also can file petitions to seal one’s criminal record from public consumption and often are successful when it comes to misdemeanors and petty crimes.
If the court can show mercy, what’s a newspaper like The Aspen Times to do? It’s a question we’ve grappled with for years.
Last year, we suspended the police blotter for about six months. The suspension was in reaction to the weekly calls that flowed in from those alleged screw-ups seeking leniency from the press for their drunken misdeeds or misunderstandings with Aspen’s finest.
Was it really worth it, or fair, for us to print these offenses week after week, especially when we don’t follow up on the majority of police-blotter arrests?
It helps to look at what the rest of the industry is doing for some guidance. As it turns out, there’s no right or wrong or single answer. Newspapers around the country vary in their approaches to publicizing arrests. Some run them without the arrestees’ names. Others only cover felonies. Some publish blotters online but pull them after 60 days.
After much research and consideration, the decision here is that when it comes to cop blotters, we owe our readers information about what their local police force is doing on a weekly basis. Readers also have a right to know when their neighbors or visitors have run afoul of the law as well as the types of crimes being committed.
The Internet’s residual effects, however, have changed the way we have decided to handle the police blotter.
So last fall, the police blotter returned to The Aspen Times, but we elected to run it exclusively in the print edition and not online. We also are willing to alter old police blotters, which remain on the Internet, on the following conditions:
• If the blotter subject provides us with official court documentation showing the charge was dropped, the person’s name will be removed.
• If the count was reduced and the arrestee shows us official paperwork that reflects such, we will make note of that change in the police blotter where the person’s name appeared.
• If the charge was deferred, we will remove a name when paperwork shows the charge has been dropped, but only after the deferred sentence is successfully completed.
That doesn’t eliminate the problem entirely because search engines can cache data that has been removed from a website. When that’s the case, it’s out of our hands and would require the subject to take it up with the search engines to permanently remove the data or pay a company to have the results buried.
Keep in mind that this policy applies to the police blotter only. We can’t and won’t get in the business of redacting stand-alone articles about felony arrests. If we’re doing our job, we should follow these stories until the cases are adjudicated, whether they lead to a dismissal of charges or decades behind bars. No bribe necessary.
Rick Carroll is managing editor of The Aspen Times. He takes comments, complaints, questions and news tips at email@example.com or 970-429-9141.