News

Palo Alto Weekly changes policy on naming people who are arrested

Publisher: With internet, reports of arrests linger for years

Concerned about the lasting impact that online search engines have on the lives of individuals arrested for crimes, the Palo Alto Weekly and Palo Alto Online are implementing new policies regarding when the names and photos of arrestees will be published.

The new policy, posted here, states that, except in limited instances, news stories will not name those arrested until they are formally charged by the county's District Attorney.

"We have become increasingly concerned about the unfairness of stories naming people arrested for crimes remaining on the internet forever," Weekly Publisher Bill Johnson said.

"Not only is an arrest not a conviction, but it is only an initial and often over-stated allegation against a person. What a person is booked for is often reduced by the District Attorney's Office and in some cases not prosecuted at all," he said.

"There is also an unfair, disproportionate effect on those with unusual names, since an internet search for an unusual name is much more likely to display a story on the arrest high in search results than if the person has a common name," he said.

The policy cites four exceptions in which the name of an arrested person will be named in a news story:

• The arrestee is a prominent person in the community, a public safety employee or a school employee.

• The arrest was for a major violent crime.

• The arrest was the result of an extended police or FBI investigation.

• In the judgment of the editor, the crime was widely reported and is of broad public interest or concern.

In any story on an arrest, however, Palo Alto Online will include a link to a law-enforcement agency's press release and booking photos, when available.

The new policy also describes the company's stance on reporting about sexual crimes and the circumstances under which an arrestee's name will be published.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen endorsed the policy change.

"Transparency is one of this office's core values. Another one is integrity. The Palo Alto Weekly's new policy, crafted around the fact that an arrest is not a charge, has both. We proudly share a mission of responsibly balancing privacy rights and the public's right to know," he said in a statement.

Molly O'Neal, Santa Clara County public defender, saw the new policy as a good step, but she said she hopes it would go further.

"It is commendable that you've changed the policy, although the link to law enforcement's release of the name means the policy change may not have the actual impact you intend," she said in an email, suggesting that the link could be omitted or the press release reposted with arrested person's name redacted.

"It certainly does impact people's lives to have arrests listed when no charges have been filed," O'Neal said.

Police departments are the usual agencies that distribute names and booking photos of arrestees to the media; district attorney's offices occasionally publish the information after someone has been charged with a crime in a high-profile case or after a lengthy investigation, such as when 16 people were arrested and charged for gang-related violent crimes in the Operation Sunny Day case in San Mateo County.

A Palo Alto Police Department spokesman declined to comment on the Weekly's new policy.

The new policy about arrestees' names was developed over several months, together with another policy, posted here, concerning when names in archived online content will be removed or edited.

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Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Comments

12 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 6, 2017 at 8:44 am

Why doesn't the weekly change it's policy on naming people in the comments section?


18 people like this
Posted by I don't get it
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 6, 2017 at 9:32 am

I don't get it. If the police press release has the person's name and mug shot, how is not copying that to the newspaper going to prevent search engines from finding the information? Are these press releases somehow unknown to Google?


28 people like this
Posted by pointless
a resident of Mayfield
on Oct 6, 2017 at 10:24 am

This info can be easily gleaned from the Mercury News, SFGate and/or Daily Post.


21 people like this
Posted by Boss tweed
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 6, 2017 at 10:37 am

I think a major series of arrests are about to come down on the people that the weekly champions with their one sided coverage. with this policy the weekly won't have to publish their names


9 people like this
Posted by Wise
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 6, 2017 at 11:41 am

Though the information might be publicized somewhere else, I appreciate your wisdom and kindness in them. Though I am guilty of wanting to know all of the information and the juicy details, you are completely right in the fact that people named are not proven guilty. This feels right and ethical.

I think the point of providing a link to the law enforcement means that though we can still access the information, it is a more direct source and updates will be more accurate and timely. If law enforcement chooses to remove the information, it is then not also printed here.


14 people like this
Posted by Innocent Until Proven Guilty
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 6, 2017 at 12:27 pm

Innocent Until Proven Guilty is a registered user.

A responsible policy. I hope other news sources will follow suit.

The internet frequently does terrible damage to good people--as often happens on Palo Alto Online.

I do wish the PA Online would simply report the news and post letters to the editor that have been fact checked. Most of the anonymous online conversation is venomous, misinformed, and completely unproductive toward building a healthy community.

People are attracted to the gossip and innuendo. It is uncivil, ugly and destructive, but it makes money so businesses appeal to our base impulses to draw attention to their product.

Please stop.


4 people like this
Posted by @PAFreePress
a resident of another community
on Oct 6, 2017 at 6:43 pm

Rarely do we agree with the Weekly. However, in this case, we wholeheartedly agree. We’ve argued this very point with the media management of the Palo Alto police department ourselves. It’s unfortunate they, Palo Alto police, have failed to express their points of view in this policy change, but were not surprised.

When, individuals are arrested by the Palo Alto police currently, they proudly display the arrestees mugshot like it some trophy. Insensitive and callous is our reasoning and can be viewed bullying....Besides, if the person is found not guilty, does the Palo Alto police make any attempt to remove the original arrestees photo from the internet? Congratulation to the Weekly....


4 people like this
Posted by Trailblazers
a resident of another community
on Oct 7, 2017 at 12:58 pm

This policy might be difficult for some people initially because we are a society that is accustomed to every bit of "news," whether factual or not, being at our fingertips. Entitlement kicks in. There are times to recognize when we have gone too far.

The Weekly's policy is a good one. It is shielding the arrested person, who has not been charged with a crime at this point, from easily being identified through search engines. It is also seeking to maintain journalistic integrity by remaining transparent to the public through adding a link to the police press release, which is most likely not going to be picked up by the search engine.

Other news organizations might prefer to continue to publish the names, but the Weekly is doing what it believes is a moral obligation to not do unnecessary harm. There isn't any reason to believe it would be in the public interest.

With all of the cynicism about the media and its intentions today, particularly with the obfuscation by one current U.S. president and the threats to a free press, the Weekly is showing what responsible media is about.

To those who get on here and create false narratives about conspiracies by the paper to protect people it supports, I don't see you putting your real name up here. Where is your honesty and integrity?

The current policy of allowing anonymity for comments sometimes stretches the rubber band of free speech to the limit. I'd guess that if we were all forced to use our real names there would be a lot more responsible posting and a lot less trolling.


10 people like this
Posted by Boss tweed
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 7, 2017 at 1:36 pm

Trailblazer -- where Is your honesty and integrity in not using your real name?and I would hardly equate the weekly with journalistic integrity given that they are " owned " by certain groups in the city. Read their " editorials " from this year and you will see what I mean.


6 people like this
Posted by retired attorney
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 8, 2017 at 2:18 pm

Let’s break this policy down logically.

The Weekly isn’t questioning the accuracy of police reports that identify people who are arrested. In fact, the Weekly is saying that it will use the police department’s identification of an arrestee in four situations.

This policy decision isn’t spurred by an issue of accuracy. It’s driven by a concern that people who were arrested but not charged will later find their names in the Weekly’s archives, and the paper believes that’s unfair.

Still, the record of an arrest, even before the arrestee has been formally charged, is a public record in California.

A better approach would be to print the names of all arrestees, and if a person isn’t charged, go back to the page in the archives bearing the person’s name and append the page to say that the DA declined to bring charges. That would create a more accurate and thorough record.

In fact, such an approach might even be helpful to the arrestee who isn’t charged. That’s because many databases containing arrest records are messy, and the arrestees’ name will appear in numerous places without a notation that charges weren’t brought. If anyone questions the arrestee about the case, he or she could simply point to the Weekly’s archives, which would state that the person was arrested but not charged. That would solve a lot of problems for such a person.

Under this policy, another concern is that the Weekly may well neglect to follow up stories where a name was omitted to see if charges were actually brought. If the Weekly intends to do such follow-up stories, that identify people who were arrested, they should be prominently displayed with words like “ARREST FOLLOW-UP” or something to that effect.

This policy change will raise predictable complaints that it’s just a conspiracy to protect certain people who are friendly with the newspaper’s management. I doubt that, though the policy will come in handy if a realtor who advertises is arrested and is able to convince the DA not to bring charges.

In fact, this policy gives the DA a little more power than most prosecutors possess. One of the most embarrassing things about being arrested is having your name in the paper. The DA can use this as leverage against the arrestee. The DA can say to the arrestee, “Do whatever I say and I can make sure your name doesn’t appear in the Weekly.”

That may explain why Jeff Rosen endorsed this policy. He might have also done so because he wants to curry favor with the Weekly, knowing that he could have a tough re-election bid next year given his support of Judge Aaron Persky and his handling of the Abhishek Gattani spousal abuse case.

The exceptions listed set up two classes of people who are arrested. Those whose names will be reported include prominent people, those accused of a “major violent crime,” a police officer or firefighter or school employee, or somebody else who the editor believes is of “broad public interest or concern.”

There’s no bright line here. That gives the paper a lot of wiggle room, making this policy change practically meaningless. More like a public relations stunt.


2 people like this
Posted by a little positivity please
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 13, 2017 at 3:08 pm

This sounds like a reasonable and well-thought-out change. Good work, Palo Alto Weekly. Every organization should be willing to look hard at current practices and revise them when needed to adapt to modern circumstances.

The salacious public "right to know" has become an unhealthy obsession in some circles.


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