‘We don’t have secret arrests in this country’

Below this editorial are those from other North Country newspapers criticizing Gov. Andrew’s Cuomo’s new proposal to ban police from releasing arrest information or mugshots — except when police decide it is in their interest to do so. We completely agree with everything these other newspapers say, and we hesitated over whether to write an editorial ourselves because they had already said what we wanted to.

But then we decided there might be one or two things more to say.

One is about the nature of secrecy. In the short term, keeping things secret can keep the peace, alleviate stress and be more efficient for those in charge, but there is a long-term price to be paid. It ties knots that tangle and become harder to undo in the future. It gives people reason to distrust you, and trust is an essential commodity to many people — one that takes a great deal of time and struggle to rebuild.

We’d like to think people have learned this lesson from the Catholic Church’s struggles after covering up priests’ sexual abuse of children over past generations. When church leaders heard allegations — not necessarily proof — of priests’ wrongdoing, they simply moved the priest and kept things quiet from the public. The idea was that scandal would mean more harm to the victim, the priest and the church — but now, decades later, the public is still not finished unraveling the tangled web of secrets, and the church’s authority, reputation and number of priests has greatly depleted.

We worry about what would happen to police’s reputation and grassroots authority — not the top-down kind but the kind that derives from the consent of the governed — if the state government orders them to keep arrests secret. What a position it would put them in — to be so feared and suspected.

“We don’t have secret arrests in this country,” Bob Freeman, head of the state Committee on Open Government, has told us several times. Yet that’s what Cuomo would give us — the kind of secret policing seen in other countries’ authoritarian regimes that Americans, in general, disapprove of.

Our system works because its openness allows anyone to potentially be a check or balance against potential police overreach. Put police under a cloud of darkness with no public accountability or transparency, and it’s easy to imagine what kind of awful temptations could arise. How would anyone know if, for instance, they locked up someone on bogus charges or punished someone just because that person criticized a public leader?

Nevertheless, we must consider: Is Cuomo responding to a real problem here? We are very aware that public knowledge of arrests is painful for the reputations of people who are arrested. It is common for people who have been charged with a crime to call us at the newspaper and asked for their arrests to be left out of the daily police blotter. We always answer the same: We cannot do that. We strongly believe that consistent transparency about arrests is more just than selective treatment, or than letting people be ignorant of dangerous deeds allegedly committed in their area.

If everyone has a right to control news about him or her, that leaves the rest of us in the dark, starved for facts about what’s going on around us.

Yet what about those who are innocent, or who are otherwise not convicted? We always tell people who call about their arrests that if charges are dismissed, they can show us proof and we will print that, too. Very few do. In fact, it’s hard to get that kind of information out of the courts — especially in this area, where there are a multitude of far-flung tiny courts, each with little in the way of news, making monitoring them impossible for a small newspaper staff. We can only follow the biggest cases.

Maybe a way to improve the justice of this situation and alleviate the reputation harm is to make court outcomes easier to see, available through a central hub. Getting that information easily into the media would give the public a more accurate sense of who is innocent and who is guilty. We would be ready to support a proposal like that from the governor — but one like this is just terrible.

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The Press-Republican of Plattsburgh on arrest reports remaining public, Jan. 23:

As part of his executive budget for next year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed banning disclosure to the public of mugshots and booking information as “an unwanted invasion of personal privacy.”

If this became law, it would most assuredly create disadvantages for law-abiding citizens.

Cuomo’s initiative is motivated by a good intention: stopping a form of extortion by unscrupulous operators of certain websites.

What they do is put up on their sites photos and information distributed by police upon making an arrest. Then, these operators offer to take the photos and information down — in exchange for a fee, which may be hundreds of dollars.

The practice is inarguably underhanded. It should never be regarded as any kind of journalism in the traditional sense.

Unfortunately, though, Cuomo’s means of combatting this — enacting changes to the state’s Freedom of Information Law — strikes a blow to the public’s right to important information that helps secure safety for all.

When someone is arrested, there is no guarantee that the person is guilty as charged. Far from it. In our justice system, some people are eventually judged to be innocent of the crimes for which they are charged.

Nevertheless, the public has the right to know that police and district attorneys have enough evidence to file a charge. Arrests are not entered into lightly.

People can thereby choose, for example, whether they want to avoid contact with the accused. The public is also more aware of the types of crime in their communities and who may be involved.

Sometimes, those accused are public figures who play a role in the lives of many people — in the case of public officials, all of us. That information must be conveyed to members of the public so they can decide for themselves whether to support or condemn the actions of those public figures.

The governor’s proposal would allow distribution of the information and the photos if it would enhance the ability of police to find suspects on the loose.

However, even that raises questions of fairness and transparency: It would be up to the police to decide which accused offenders’ identities are disclosed to the public and, more dangerously, which are not.

One of the most well-known advocates of a free press in New York state over the years has been Diane Kennedy, president of the New York News Publishers Association.

She told the Times Union of Albany: “It’s not happy news that the governor wants to encourage secret arrests. Seems like an excellent way to ensure that the arrests of powerful, politically connected people remain secret. It also would allow arrests of suspected pedophiles and rapists to remain secret. That doesn’t seem to serve the public very well.”

Clearly, the answer to the indefensible website operators is to regulate them, rather than taking away from the public a right that has worked in its favor for so many years — decades, centuries.

An arrest is not an indication of guilt. But it is enough of a caution that, until the courts have done their job, members of the public should have the information to guide their own behavior.

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The Post-Star of Glens Falls on Gov. Cuomo’s proposal to make arrest information confidential, Jan. 25:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has included in his 2020 executive budget a proposal to keep arrests secret, which could be the worst idea he has ever had, proposed in the worst possible way.

Important changes in state law — and this change would require amending the state’s Freedom of Information Law — should not be included in the budget. They should be put forward as bills, to be brought up for debate and consideration on their own merits by our representatives in the Legislature.

We have an understanding in this country that arrests are public record, and this is critical for the equal application of justice and for public safety. Allowing the selective release of arrests, which Cuomo’s proposal would do, means allowing favoritism in their disclosure. This happens already, on rare occasions, when police are slow to release details about the arrest of a fellow officer, for example. But Cuomo’s proposal would give police agencies an excuse to withhold information about arrests whenever they chose.

Making arrests and mugshots public may satisfy the curiosity of citizens who want to see if someone they know has been charged with a crime, but it also makes everyone safer. You want to know when a person who lives in your community or your neighborhood has been charged with molesting children, or setting houses on fire, or burglary, or assault.

You want to know what the charge is and what the accused looks like. This is an important part of our system of crime prevention and an important way that citizens stay informed about their communities. The governor should not toss this principle aside just because unscrupulous operators are making money off police mugshots.

These businesses post police booking photos on websites, then charge high fees to take them down. This is a bad business, and if Cuomo wants to go after these operators, we support him.

But you don’t ban $20 bills because, sometimes, they are used to buy illegal drugs. What you do is go after the bad behavior, which is what Cuomo should do with these extortionate websites. Meanwhile, the public’s right to know who has been arrested, and why, must be protected.

We’re not sure how far the governor intends to push this cockamamie idea. Will this affect public access to the state’s sex offender registry, now available online with names, birthdates, criminal convictions, photos and more?

There is a difference between being charged with a crime and being convicted of one. But, frequently, months can pass between arrest and conviction. If the information is not available upon arrest, it will be much more difficult to gather and make public later.

Cuomo has other, better ways to combat the misuse of this information. If he really is as bothered by these abusive websites as he says, then he should direct his attacks at them, not at information that New Yorkers use to keep their families safe.

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