Is there a value to reporting on crime in the community? I know from the pageviews any crime-related story gets that there’s a lot of interest in crime reporting — probably more than any other type of news. But is there value in it?

Reporting on crime lets people know what’s going on in their neighborhoods — at least theoretically. It may give people information they can use to protect their families, their homes and their property. Reporting arrests may serve as a deterrent.

But the reporting can only be as good as the information made available to the reporter. Unfortunately, the information provided by Riverhead Town Police can be so spotty, inconsistent and incomplete that reporting it can’t be said to fulfill those objectives.

Many arrests are not included in the “Riverhead Police Press Report” provided to the media by the department. The arrests that are included in that report are lacking basic information — sometimes even the charges brought against the person listed. The amount of information entered into the police department’s computer system that generates the “press report” varies wildly. Sometimes some officers write a short narrative. Others barely provide any information. In the reports for the month of February, one entry didn’t even include the defendant’s name — or the charge against him. It simply said “10-32 1 M.” (10-32 is the code for a prisoner). Another entry simply said “ARREST,” nothing more.

A few years ago, I did an analysis of arrests reported to the media versus the number of arrests actually made. The police department was only reporting — either in the “press report” or in press releases — about a third of the arrests its officers made. See prior story.

How can I responsibly and in good conscience report arrests I do have information on when I know that there are other arrests for which I have been given no information or not enough information to do a basic report?

It seems fundamentally unfair to report that John Doe was arrested for DWI one day because his name appears in the police department’s “press report” when four other people were arrested for DWI that week but their names and arrests are not listed there.

The police “press report” concerning incidents other than arrests also lacks a lot of basic information.

Riverhead Town Police distribute press releases rather infrequently and it’s not clear to me how the department decides which incidents or releases should be the subject of a release and which ones don’t merit a release. When the police send out a press release, however, we almost always publish it.

The Riverhead Police Department is a small department and doesn’t have a public information office staffed with employees whose job is to provide information and write press releases. So, it’s basically catch as catch can. I get that. And I don’t believe the police department intentionally withholds the basic information that’s often missing from the “press report.” I believe there’s a lack of uniformity on how the information gets entered and I believe the department’s computer software is past due for an upgrade.

Be that as it may, since overall I have so little confidence about the completeness of the information I’m being provided with, I’m queasy about reporting it. 

The police department could certainly be more transparent. Its own guidelines, for example, suggest (though do not mandate) that arrest reports include the accused person’s name, age, place of resident, date of arrest, facts pertaining to the arrest, charges filed and a description of contraband seized. It would be very helpful if the department could adhere to that policy more consistently.

I do believe accurate, comprehensive police and crime reporting provides a value to the community. And the department’s media policy acknowledges this: “The public has a right to be informed about crime, law enforcement and the administration of justice.” It also says: “The department has an obligation to report on its activities to the public it serves.”

 

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.