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.