The Stars guidelines for describing crime suspectsBy DEREK DONOVAN
The Kansas City Star
Readers demand consistency in The Kansas City Star, and a common criticism is that standards in the description of criminal suspects differ widely from story to story.
With that in mind, lets look at three items from recent weeks:
• An June 20 brief about three armed men who robbed a Northland convenience store: It gives no description of the suspects, but says, Police released video surveillance and asked for the publics help in identifying the robbers. It also notes that the video was posted on KansasCity.com.
• A June 2 brief about a bank robber: This time, there were specifics. He was described as black and about 5 feet 8 inches to 6 feet tall. He was wearing a dark fedora, wire-framed glasses, dark gray slacks and a dark coat. He was also believed to be wearing a gray wig and a fake mustache.
• A June 11 brief about a man who held up a Mission restaurant: It says his face was covered by a bandana, further describing him as a thin man about 6 feet to 6 and a half feet tall, (who) carried a black, semi-automatic handgun. He was wearing a blue KU baseball cap and blue KU hooded sweatshirt.
One caller last week was particularly perturbed by the brief that pointed readers to the surveillance video. Whatever happened to the good old who, what, when, where and why that (journalists) are supposed to always give us? she asked. Why cant they watch the video and say what the robbers look like?
In this case, police released no descriptions at all. I watched the video, which is of very poor quality. It appears to show three black males whose agility suggests theyre young. The color of their shirts and that one is wearing a cap are the only other specifics I could glean. Their faces and all other minutiae are a blur.
An emailer that same day suggested The Star uses skin color as the deciding factor in whether to describe a suspect, with the clear inference that he thinks the paper wont include it if the person is black. As my second example above demonstrates, that isnt the case.
But Ive discussed this issue with readers uncountable times through the years and I have seen instances where The Star hasnt followed its own guidelines. Ive also spoken with many readers who think those policies are wrong.
The Stars stylebook says to be especially cautious about identifying criminal suspects by race or ethnicity when the overall description of the person is vague.
It clarifies that skin color should be included when the description also includes height, weight, hair color, approximate age and one other distinguishing element such as a noticeable physical attribute (but not eye color a strange rule, in my opinion), clothing or a vehicle.
It allows for two exceptions:
• When the person has one particularly distinctive physical characteristic, fewer details are acceptable, but race should be included: an Asian man about 5 feet 8 inches tall with a wooden left leg.
• Stories about serial or most-wanted criminals may give much less detail because a reader will want even superficial information to help him or her decide how to respond to potential threats.
So in the three examples above, the first two follow the policies. The third does not, omitting age and skin color.
Vague descriptions such as a black man in his mid-20s describe thousands of people in the Kansas City area. I hope that people who dont belong to a minority will appreciate that pointing out unhelpful aspects of ones appearance are as offensive as noting the persons religion, political views or alma mater.
I understand the reasoning behind The Stars guidelines, but I also think readers who find them too restrictive have a point as well. Some descriptions can still be useful with fewer than six attributes.