Police chief hopes to get people talking by withholding information.Jan. 29, 2013 8:49 AM
Witnesses to violent crimes in Fort Myers still aren’t talking, and the city’s police chief says new legislation is necessary to end the silence.
Police Chief Doug Baker meets with local legislators today to discuss removing the names of crime victims and witnesses from public record. He argues many people with information on crimes are reluctant to come forward because they don’t want their names and faces splashed across the media. Opponents of the proposal argue it threatens the public’s right to oversight over law enforcement and the judicial system.
Fort Myers saw a record 24 homicides last year, only five of which have led to arrests. Baker credits the poor arrest rate to a fear of retaliation if witnesses come forward. He has tried everything from a $25,000 reward to pleas made by the desperate mothers of homicide victims to convince witnesses to speak up, but to little avail.
“The people don’t want to be identified,” Baker said. “That’s something that’s a fear within the community.”
Florida’s public records law, dubbed the Sunshine Law, is one of the broadest in the country. All state, county and municipal records, including most police records, are open for inspection by any person. Certain items are excluded, such as the identities of confidential informants or victims of certain sex crimes, or information that would jeopardize a police investigation if released.
That’s not true in every state — in some states documents such as court records, arrest records and local crime statistics can be difficult to get, according to Al Tompkins of Poynter, a St. Petersburg based journalism institute.
“In Florida there’s a presumption of openness,” he said. “It’s wide open because every time something like this comes up we raise our voices to fight against it.”
Tompkins said imposing the sweeping exemptions to public records Baker proposed could have disastrous consequences. If the names of witnesses and victims of crimes aren’t public, watchdogs have no way of determining the validity of police accusations. Checking the validity of witness and victim identities, as well as of their statements, is a crucial aspect of oversight, Tompkins said.
“We wouldn’t be able to know whether what the police said happened or not,” Tompkins said. “There would be no way for us to weigh the evidence. It would be a completely secret police state.”
Baker argued names are irrelevant to oversight. His first concern is the protection of victims and witnesses, which he has seen violated by media banging on their doors and windows.
“The truth is if it bleeds it leads,” Baker said. “It’s not oversight. It has nothing to do with oversight.”
Tompkins said victims and witnesses often want to speak out about what they saw or experienced, and should be given the opportunity to do so. It can be cathartic and vindicating, he said. Tompkins acknowledged media outlets are sometimes guilty of sensationalist interviews with victims or witnesses, and there are certain things journalists should not disclose.
But many media outlets adhere to strict codes of ethics and withhold certain information even if it is public record, such as the names of rape victims or juvenile victims. Instead of changing state law, Baker should address each situation on a case by case basis and ask media to withhold certain information that could be damaging to a case, Tompkins said.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said Baker’s proposal wouldn’t protect anyone because most victims and witnesses will have to testify in an open courtroom.
Terry Eberle, vice president for content and executive editor of The News-Press Media Group, said there are ways to work with a responsible media without passing a law that limits public record.
“I’m interested in seeing what he has to say, but there must be other ways to do it that would protect the first amendment,” Eberle said. “They will open up a big can of worms here with this legislation.”
Fort Myers Broadcasting Company, (WINK News), declined comment Monday. Waterman Broadcasting, (NBC-2 and ABC-7), and Journal Communications (FOX-4), did not return calls for comment.
State Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, said he’s excited to address Baker’s proposal today, though he hasn’t made up his mind on where he stands.
“It is a tough call,” Caldwell said. “I think what I would say for now is I’m sympathetic to what Chief Baker’s proposed. I think there is some possibility to what he’s thinking, and I’d like to have that conversation with my colleagues.”
If Baker’s proposal is to move past today’s meeting, it must be filed as a bill by the March 5 start of the next legislative session.