I wrote about a very good question a reader brought up some time ago: When a police officer kills a person, should journalists report that officer’s name?
My admittedly poorly-stated conclusion is that law enforcement officials are public employees, and therefore the public does have the right to know. What I didn’t say is that I do think it should be situational.
I’m not going to bring up the specific case that prompted the question many months ago, because in that case, no criminal charges were brought against the officer. But he was publicly accused of misconduct during the incident, which was witnessed by multiple people in a public place. In that case, I still think it was justified to name him. And I’d say the same generally any time improper conduct is alleged.
I should also have noted that there are many instances where The Star hasn’t reported names of officers who kill someone in the course of doing their work. In fact, I am certain in the vast majority of deaths that are deemed justified, the officers’ names are not released.
I think not getting both those caveats into the column was a serious omission, which I regret now.
But judging from the feedback I’m hearing, readers contacting me clearly think journalists should never disclose the name of an officer unless indicted. A sampling:
“In my opinion, the stupidest argument I’ve ever heard. … No doubt it is difficult enough for police forces to locate and hire capable individuals without having the news media put their lives in danger.”
“These officers are working with criminals every day to make our communities safer. They are put in enough danger daily without the news media making it worse. Until all of the circumstances are made evident, the police officer should not be named.”
“One of the worst things you’ve ever printed. There would be no Kansas City Star without police to protect (you).”
“It's up to the police chief to release that info. If there is a safety concern, they can hold it back.”
“When an officer shoots in self defense, he’s a victim, not a suspect and has a right to privacy. If and when he is indicted and becomes a suspect, his name is put out there. A cop doing his job, assaulted and forced to defend himself has enough to deal with without the media putting his and his families safety at risk in a witch hunt. I think the reporter who IDs the officer or give out their home address, family info, etc should be civilly liable for anything that happens as a result.”
One detail I should note: There are Internet myths that mainstream media sources routinely publish private information such as police officers’ home addresses, as they supposedly did to Ferguson officer Darren Wilson. That is false. To do so would be a serious violation of their privacy.
But readers clearly think I was wrong here, and they’re entitled to have those voices heard.