Holding Back Arrest Information Can Lead To Bad Precedent

Gov. Andrew’s Cuomo is proposing to ban police from releasing arrest information or mugshots — except when police decide it is in their interest to do so.

In the short term, keeping things secret can keep the peace, alleviate stress and be more efficient for those in charge, but there is a long-term price to be paid. It ties knots that tangle and become harder to undo in the future. It gives people reason to distrust you, and trust is an essential commodity to many people — one that takes a great deal of time and struggle to rebuild.

We’d like to think people have learned this lesson from the Catholic Church’s struggles after covering up priests’ sexual abuse of children over past generations. When church leaders heard allegations — not necessarily proof — of priests’ wrongdoing, they simply moved the priest and kept things quiet from the public. The idea was that scandal would mean more harm to the victim, the priest and the church — but now, decades later, the public is still not finished unraveling the tangled web of secrets, and the church’s authority, reputation and number of priests has greatly depleted.

Locally, we note the lack of arrest information about an alleged rape case in Dunkirk that took two years, one hung jury and an eventual plea agreement to finally settle. It wasn’t until the case showed up on a court docket that the public had any idea a crime had been committed. It’s exactly the type of situation that could happen more often if booking information is now declared an invasion of privacy.

We worry about what would happen to police’s reputation and grassroots authority — not the top-down kind but the kind that derives from the consent of the governed — if the state government orders them to keep arrests secret. What a position it would put them in — to be so feared and suspected.

“We don’t have secret arrests in this country,” Bob Freeman, head of the state Committee on Open Government, has told us several times. Yet that’s what Cuomo would give us — the kind of secret policing seen in other countries’ authoritarian regimes that Americans, in general, disapprove of.

Our system works because its openness allows anyone to potentially be a check or balance against potential police overreach. Put police under a cloud of darkness with no public accountability or transparency, and it’s easy to imagine what kind of awful temptations could arise. How would anyone know if, for instance, they locked up someone on bogus charges or punished someone just because that person criticized a public leader?

Nevertheless, we must consider: Is Cuomo responding to a real problem here? We are very aware that public knowledge of arrests is painful for the reputations of people who are arrested. It is common for people who have been charged with a crime to call us at the newspaper and asked for their arrests to be left out of the daily police blotter. We always answer the same: We cannot do that. We strongly believe that consistent transparency about arrests is more just than selective treatment, or than letting people be ignorant of dangerous deeds allegedly committed in their area.

If everyone has a right to control news about him or her, that leaves the rest of us in the dark, starved for facts about what’s going on around us.

Yet what about those who are innocent, or who are otherwise not convicted? We always tell people who call about their arrests that if charges are dismissed, they can show us proof and we will print that, too. Very few do. In fact, it’s hard to get that kind of information out of the courts.

Maybe a way to improve the justice of this situation and alleviate the reputation harm is to make court outcomes easier to see, available through a central hub. Getting that information easily into the media would give the public a more accurate sense of who is innocent and who is guilty. We would be ready to support a proposal like that from the governor — but one like this is just terrible.