Police chief right to reopen records
Aspen Police Chief Loren Ryerson made the correct decision yesterday in allowing the general public to keep an eye on what he and his officers are up to.About 10 days ago, Ryerson, reacting to two stories published by The Aspen Times, instructed his officers to give members of the press only basic information about arrests in cases ranging from shoplifting to murder. For more than a short synopsis, reporters were going to have to pay $6 for the right to look at the report, plus a copy fee of $1 per page.That new policy would have forced reporters from Aspen’s newspapers and radio stations to first identify newsworthy leads and then either find the officer in charge of the case or go to the records department with cash in hand. Fortunately, he and the people who help run the department decided instead to continue with the long-standing tradition of making arrest reports readily available to the press. The stories that provoked Ryerson to change the policy were published on Jan. 12 and Jan. 13. They told the story of a woman whose boyfriend had been arrested in a domestic violence case. In the first story, the woman accused her boyfriend, a yoga instructor for socialite Denise Rich, of holding her captive in Rich’s Red Mountain home for three days over Thanksgiving. In the second story, the accused answered those charges.We decided to publish the story because it involved allegations of imprisonment. Hardly your run-of-the-mill domestic violence case. Three editors and the reporter discussed this story before deciding to go ahead with it – it’s not something we took lightly. In neither story nor in a subsequent brief did The Aspen Times reveal the name of the victim.When he first proposed changing the policy, the police chief made it clear that he wants to protect witnesses and victims from undue public scrutiny. On the surface, it’s a worthy goal. People should feel safe about reporting crimes that they’ve been victimized by or witnessed. But Colorado’s Criminal Justice Records Act mandates that police departments maintain certain records – including arrest reports – for public inspection. The only people involved in a crime who are legally guaranteed their anonymity are juveniles and sexual assault victims. Except in those two areas, the state Legislature has decided there is no right of privacy involving criminal cases. It’s important that Aspenites have the ability to scrutinize the decisions made by public officials, including police officers.Aspenites have had an easygoing relationship with the police department since the mid-1970s. It’s refreshing to be able to live in a place where we can trust police officers to act with respect and restraint wherever possible. Much of that trust has no doubt been built around the department’s willingness to share details of its work with the public at large – oftentimes through reporters who act as the public’s surrogate.Loren Ryerson’s decision to continue opening his records to the public is in line with this community’s history of open government at every level. Hopefully, it will improve the already remarkable relationship between those who live and vacation here and those who protect them.
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