Editor's Notebook: Here's why the Police Beat goes on
Much of my typical workday is spent fielding phone calls and reading e-mail messages from people who want to be in the newspaper. They have stories to tell, businesses to promote or events to publicize, and our four print editions and new Web site are the ideal way to spread the word to 70,000 or so readers in southern and mid-coast Maine every week.
But hardly a week goes by, either, without a phone call from someone who doesn't want to see his or her name in print.
I'm talking about the Police Beat. So before I explain the philosophy behind our weekly compilation of arrests and summonses, here's the Reader's Digest version of what I tell every caller:
I'm willing to listen, but it really won't do you any good. We don't make exceptions when it comes to what we publish in Police Beat. If you, or your spouse, or your kid has been arrested or charged in connection with anything more heinous than a common speeding ticket, and the incident is part of the local police department log, it's going to be in the paper.
Sometimes the people who call admit they broke the law. They just don't want their spouse, boss or neighbors to find out. Some are remorseful, others get angry. Some threaten to sue us if we publish, but that doesn't make a difference. Many suggest that by publishing their arrests we and everyone who reads Police Beat are assuming they're guilty.
Actually, our only assumption is it's in the public's best interest to have the information – to know police have a reasonable suspicion a crime has been committed. Of course, the presumption of innocence is a cornerstone of our judicial system. But we're not talking about what goes on in a courtroom, before a judge and jury; we're talking about the way news institutions cover crime and law enforcement. If a presumption of innocence dictated what we report or don't report, you wouldn't know anything about criminal activity and investigations in your city, town or neighborhood until the criminals are convicted.
Of course, that doesn't mean we ignore the presumption of innocence, either. We're particularly careful about not suggesting that anyone who is only accused of a crime is guilty. That's why Police Beat items say people have been charged, or criminal acts are alleged.
But if you pay taxes, you're paying for the charges, allegations and arrests we report, and have a right to know how your money is being spent and what your police department is doing to protect you. Rarely do people who call me claim they're innocent. If they did, and a pattern emerged, we'd be writing about police incompetence and corruption instead of allegedly drunken drivers, or shoplifters or people who drive past stopped school buses.
The Police Beat is also a town-by-town road map to where stuff happens. Not unexpectedly, the Maine Mall area generates quite a few arrests by Scarborough and South Portland police for shoplifting, bad checks and purse-snatchings; perhaps, after connecting the dots, your wife or daughter will park a little closer to the entrance next time she goes shopping at night. Or if the guy who lives around the corner is repeatedly arrested for OUI, maybe you'll steer clear when you see him coming down the street after happy hour.
Not that we believe the police are always right, and that's another reason for publishing names: It helps keep the cops accountable. Our constitutional protections against illegal searches and unwarranted arrests don't exist in societies where, without a public record of who has been arrested and why, police can pluck people off the streets or out of their homes and lock them up without just cause – and without telling anyone about it.
So as the real estate agent who advertises with us found out after being charged with OUI, and as the social service agency director learned after claiming his marijuana bust would cost him and his wife their jobs – and as we've told the relatives and friends of more than one employee here at The Forecaster, too – I'm sorry, but we don't make exceptions when it comes to Police Beat.