Public Editor

Should journalists name police officers involved in fatalities?

Law enforcement officials have a much tougher, more dangerous job than most of us. When police are involved in fatalities, does news coverage naming the officers put them in undue peril?
Law enforcement officials have a much tougher, more dangerous job than most of us. When police are involved in fatalities, does news coverage naming the officers put them in undue peril? The Kansas City Star

When a police officer kills someone while on duty, should journalists report the officer’s name?

Here I am quoting email from a police officer about one such situation that occurred quite some time ago. I have purposely sat on it so that we can look at the philosophical question, not the specifics of any one incident.

I just read your article on the officer involved shooting. While it’s a concise article free of bias, I am disturbed that you named the officer.

As police officers we face danger, not only at work, but when we are off duty as well. Due to the nature of our job, we take great measures to keep ourselves anonymous. … So publishing his name could have devastating consequences. …

I understand you have every right to publish his name but sometimes just because you have that right doesn’t mean it’s the best choice.

I also understand the family (of the person who was killed) can get his name, but only after the investigation. Now (the officer) has to be extra vigilant in regard his security.

You may be reading this and thinking that I am being nit-picky. We have had several officers tracked down by family members after shootings, some many years later, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

One of those officers was tracked down and approached after he gave a speech … many years later. The family member told him that the next time he sees the officer, he was going to kill him. This guy still has to look over his shoulder and it’s been a decade since the shooting.

Next time just think of the consequences of publishing the name of an officer involved in a shooting.

This officer raises an understandable concern. Others, law enforcement and civilian alike, have expressed similar thoughts.

I spoke about the questions this type of coverage raise with Greg Farmer, The Kansas City Star’s metro editor. His reply:

Safety of a news maker and his or her family is always a consideration in our reporting, whether that person is a public employee or an average citizen.

We know police officers, and by extension their families, are often in harm’s way, and we appreciate their service to all of us. But they are public employees, paid by taxpayers, and their actions, both the good and the bad, are newsworthy.

I think he nails the salient factor in this case: Police officers are public employees, and it’s a core mission of journalists to report news about government and law enforcement.

The men and women who serve the public in law enforcement have a job fraught with danger and difficulty. This is a concrete example of one of the considerations they deal with that few among the rest of us have to contemplate.

While I acknowledge fully the officer’s point about that news having an effect on their lives outside their job, I can’t argue that those considerations outweigh the public’s right to know.

If the altercation had involved, say, a state representative who killed someone, would anyone argue it shouldn’t be reported?

But it’s also important to remember that the results of the subsequent investigation, and whether criminal charges are brought, should also axiomatically be covered, too.

News reports must always consider fairness when the accused is vindicated.

To reach Derek Donovan, call 816-234-4487 weekday mornings or send email to publiceditor@kcstar.com.

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