Last week with no warning, police started omitting names from their weekly arrest blotter, effectively withholding the identities of people charged with crimes.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Oct. 29 print edition.
The decision drew criticism this week from transparency advocates who claim that the new practice is out of step with principles of open justice and reduces the effectiveness of a valuable crime deterrent.
A former Virgin Islands police commissioner also weighed in, expressing concern that the policy change was made under an acting commissioner.
Meanwhile, police have remained tight-lipped about the decision, refusing to explain their reasoning in detail or to release their media policy.
For decades, the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force published regular reports disclosing the name, age, residence, and alleged infractions against people arrested and charged with crimes.
That longstanding routine — which is standard practice among most police forces in the United Kingdom — ended at 12:44 p.m. on Oct. 21 when the RVIPF released a blotter that omitted the names of people who were charged between Oct. 4 and 17.
Police have not explained the decision in detail, though Police Information Officer Diane Drayton did release a statement yesterday in response to several questions that she mostly did not answer.
“It should be made clear that it is not the RVIPF intention to withhold information from the public,” Ms. Drayton wrote. “The decision is now that the names of persons charged would not be released before their appearance in court.”
Though defendants’ identities can indeed be obtained during court proceedings, the Magistrates’ Court has three locations throughout the territory and it does not publicly list when and where defendants are to appear. In some cases, they may not appear until weeks after their arrest, and if the charges are dropped they may not appear at all.
Acting Police Commissioner Alwin James has not spoken publicly about the RVIPF decision or responded to requests for an interview.
The debate over naming and shaming
By KEN SILVA
The police force’s recent decision to omit names from arrest reports calls to mind a debate that has been raging in the United Kingdom for years.
In the UK, however, it’s largely a given that police should identify people charged with crimes.
The debate there centres instead around whether to identify suspects who have been arrested but not charged.
Proponents of withholding such suspects’ identities say anonymity protects the reputations of people who are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
But others say the practice is tantamount to making “secret arrests,” and argue that releasing names can encourage victims to come forward.
The ongoing debate was fuelled by a late-2000s scandal in the UK, when several reporters were found to have illegally intercepted phone messages.
The scandal eventually spurred the government to call for an inquiry into media practices and ethics, which resulted in a 995-page report by Lord Justice Leveson titled An inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.
Though the lion’s share of the report centred around other issues of media ethics, certain passages made the case that police should not identify suspects who have not been charged.
“I think that should be made abundantly clear that save in exceptional and clearly identified circumstances (for example, where there may be an immediate risk to the public), the names or identifying details of those who are arrested or suspected of a crime should not be released,” Mr. Leveson wrote.
However, he stopped short of recommending that people charged with a crime should not be identified. And in the wake of the Leveson report, the UK Association of Chief Police Officers advised police forces that names should be released after suspects are charged, but not before.
The Leveson report and the ensuing threats – defence attorneys of a suspected sexual offender, for example, allegedly threatened a publication that printed their client’s name – have had a chilling effect on the UK press, according to transparency advocates.
Bob Satchwell, the executive director of the Society of Editors, told the Guardian, “There is no doubt that since the Leveson inquiry, media organisations have been subdued in naming people who have been arrested, particularly when they are high profile.”
Such pressures have been met with resistance from free-speech organisations including the Index on Censorship, the International Press Institute, and others.
“The IPI always leans towards transparency unless there are compelling reasons otherwise (perhaps those arrested but not charged with sexual abuse),” stated Scott Griffen, the IPI’s director of press freedom programmes. “We generally feel that for various reasons – open justice and freedom of information – the names of those arrested do not need to be kept secret.”
In the Caribbean
There are other Caribbean jurisdictions that follow the same policy as the one recently implemented in the Virgin Islands. In the Cayman Islands and Anguilla, for example, police do not release the names of people charged with crimes.
In Latin America, some countries are even more secretive. The Venezuela government, for example, typically does not release information on an accused person until his or her trial is completed, according to Venezuelan journalist Joseph Poliszuk.
“No one should be detained without knowing his whereabouts,” he added. “That’s illegal, but in practice everything is at the discretion of the officials.”
In the United States, the names of arrestees are included in public police reports even if they are not charged.
Dan Beverley, interim executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said that in most US states arrest information must be released by police on request, even when the suspect is a minor.
“I just saw something on my local news site that a 14- and 15-year old were involved in an armed robbery,” he said, “and sure enough, their mug shots were plastered on the screen.”
In the US, it’s up to the discretion of the press to decide what should be reported, he said.
Mr. Beverley added that there can be pitfalls with this practice in the digital age.
“Some of the concerns we’re seeing today is that if someone is released after an initial proceeding, the arrest information is still available on the Internet,” he said. “That can be a detriment for someone looking for employment opportunities.”
But the NFIC director said those concerns aren’t compelling enough for the police to withhold identities of arrestees. Rather, he said it’s the responsibility of the press to report when suspects are vindicated.
According to Omaya Sosa, the co-director of the Puerto Rico-based Center for Investigative Journalism, the police in the US commonwealth operate under the same policy as those in the US mainland.
While the US seems to have the most liberal standards in terms of transparency, at least one US-based organisation takes an opposing position.
Open Society Foundations legal advisor Marion Isobel said she believes the identity of people arrested and charged with crimes should not be made public.
“We try to push the media to go in exactly this direction, and to stop publishing the names or photos of people who have been charged with crimes,” she said. “This kind of media attention, while legal in most countries, is often reported in a way that implies the person is guilty, and can adversely affect the presumption of innocence.”
The chairman of the National Security Council, Governor John Duncan – who has repeatedly called for increased government transparency – has been similarly tight-lipped: He has not answered queries about whether he was consulted on the change and whether he supports it, though Governor’s Office Policy Officer Maria Mays did say that he is aware of the issue and is discussing it with Mr. James.
Premier Dr. Orlando Smith, who also sits on the NSC, did not respond to a request for comment either.
The statement Ms. Drayton released yesterday did not provide details on why the change was made, other than stating, “It is an established practice in many jurisdictions and one that the RVIPF feels, at the time, should be implemented.”
There are police forces — including some in other UK overseas territories — that withhold the identities of people who are arrested and charged. But transparency advocates say those forces are the exception, not the rule, in democracies throughout the world.
“There is a well-established consensus internationally that persons who have been charged with a crime have ‘no right to anonymity,’ as [UK] Home Secretary Theresa May has put it,” according to Scott Griffen, the director of press freedom programmes for the Vienna-based International Press Institute. “Refusing to disclose the names of persons charged with a crime is not in line with international practice, nor does it reflect a commitment to open justice.”
Mr. Griffen also expressed concern about the fact that the RVIPF made the change without offering a full explanation to the public.
“The public has a right to know how and why the police are making decisions about whether or not to identify persons under arrest or charged with a crime,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The current policy needs to be open to debate.”
Police have also declined to provide a copy of the RVIPF Confidentiality, Crime and Media Policy on the grounds that the guide “forms part of a list of internal operational policies and [is] not for public consumption,” according to Ms. Drayton.
Mr. Griffen said the IPI finds this refusal troubling as well.
“It is worrisome that the police department has declined to provide a copy of the guidelines it is using,” he wrote.
The IPI’s criticisms have been echoed by the Association of Caribbean Media Workers and the United States-based National Freedom of Information Coalition.
“It is unfortunate that the police have taken such a course of action, which does not redound favourably on the question of their transparency as an agent of the state,” stated ACM President Wesley Gibbings.
NFIC Interim Executive Director Dan Beverley called the RVIPF’s new policy “odd,” adding that it “certainly lacks transparency.”
Former RVIPF Commissioner Vernon Malone also commented on the issue when contacted by this reporter.
Though Mr. Malone said he couldn’t say whether he agrees with the policy change because he hasn’t talked to RVIPF officials and doesn’t know why it was made, he did say that names of people arrested and charged were released when he was commissioner, and that the practice served as a crime deterrent.
“Some people would ask us not to name them, but we did it anyway because it had a crime-fighting effect,” he said.
Mr. Malone added that he was surprised to hear that the change came under Mr. James’ watch, given that acting commissioners don’t usually play a major role in policy creation.
“The role of an acting officer is to maintain the status quo,” he said. “When you’re acting, you don’t change major policies. You keep all their policies in a bundle until the commissioner comes, because he’s the one responsible for policy. You don’t want the commissioner to reverse the things you’ve done.”