Public access to crime information becomes a personal issue for SPLC

For some years now, the Student Press Law Center has devoted a good portion of its time to helping college journalists get access to information about campus crime. No one had to tell us that this was an important issue; the growing number of requests for assistance from student reporters and editors around the nation made clear this subject was high on the priority list for the campus media.This summer, the SPLC learned first hand how difficult it can be to get the most basic information about criminal incidents and how that difficulty can constitute another form of victimization.In early August, a member of our staff was critically injured in one of the random acts of unprovoked violence that have become commonplace around the country, especially in urban areas such as Washington, D.C. The assault left someone who was a part of the SPLC family unconscious in the intensive care unit of a hospital struggling for his life.When we attempted to contact local police to find out the details of what had happened, they never returned our calls. So we went to the police station to see the crime report. Despite the fact that the open records law says that any citizen has a right to see a police report for any reason, we endured an unfriendly questioning by a desk officer about our interest in the information before we were allowed to even glance at the report. We were not allowed a copy of it.To make a long story short, we eventually discovered that the individuals matching the description of the suspects in the case we were inquiring about were suspects in several other criminal incidents as well. Yet the police had given no warning to the community. Only when we called the local media was the incident reported and suspects eventually arrested.Although our battle for crime information did not occur on a college campus, it reminded us of the stories so many frustrated students tell us each week. But it also made clear to us how important it is that the media continue to wage that battle.Those directly involved in criminal incidents, whether as victims or the accused, need to know that the police are doing their job. And the entire community needs access to information that can help prevent others from becoming victims themselves.At a Congressional hearing in June, a college administrator who was speaking on behalf of the American Council on Education argued that schools should not be compelled to release campus police logs because, “Reporting does not have a deterrent effect on crime. Notification doesn’t cause precaution.”That kind of ludicrous, insensitive comment is echoed by school officials around the country. Our tolerance is growing thin. We dedicate this issue of the Report to those who have been the victims of crime, including a dedicated young journalist named J.J., who is making a remarkable recovery, and to those who are working to make sure that no one becomes a victim out of ignorance.