Three-Year Protest Against Publishing Arrestee Names Continues | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Three-Year Protest Against Publishing Arrestee Names Continues

Publishing lists of arrestees may do more harm than good for the hood, protesters say

On Oct. 22, in the middle of an East End march against police violence, members of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group stopped in front of one Garfield storefront to highlight what they consider another sort of police-related violence. Alex Bradley mounted the steps of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, a community-development organization, to protest the publication of the names of local arrestees every month in the BGC's widely distributed Bulletin.

"They want to get rid of what they consider undesirables," Bradley accused the BGC. The organization is trying "to put parts of [the community] in jail and force other parts to move" by printing the names of those arrested but not yet tried, let alone convicted.

Such crime roundups, known commonly as police blotters, are printed in small-town newspapers everywhere, but often leave out the names of arrestees. Every BGC police blotter is headed by a disclaimer: "Please note that this is a list of arrests only, not convictions, and all arrestees are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law."

But each blotter also contains this bland statement: "The BGC Public Safety Task Force received the following information from the Zone 5 police ..."

"Now, a reasonable person might conclude from that wording that they are listing everyone who was arrested in the previous month," Bradley said after the march. "Such a person would be wrong ..."

In fact, BGC only prints prostitution, gun and drug charges -- concentrating, according to BGC Executive Director Rick Swartz, on "activities that are primarily on the street itself -- the drug dealer who is on the street every day." After all, he says, neighborhood residents "will tell you, as long as this activity is taking place, in full view of the neighborhood ... it's hard to come away with the impression that the neighborhood has been improving."

That answer doesn't satisfy critics.

"Why only choose crimes committed primarily by those who are poor and already marginalized?" asked Bradley and 16 others who signed a June 2004, letter to the Bulletin -- part of a three-year campaign against BGC's blotter. "What about corporate white-collar crimes of the wealthy who profit off the misery of this neighborhood without giving anything back? Isn't this a real threat to the development of Bloomfield-Garfield?"

To be fair, the Bulletin also features an "Eyesore Property of the Month," naming the owners and offering help. Swartz notes that police blotters are public information, and that the BGC has had to retract only one listing, although he cannot recall the circumstances.

But critics say the blotter puts far too much faith in the justice system.

"If you thought that the police stop people based on appearance ... [or] on being congregated with a group of black friends standing around," Bradley says, "if you believed that [police] sometimes plant evidence or unjustly arrest people, would you ever in a million years support listing the names of those arrested?"

The BGC is hardly alone in placing faith in the power of public information sharing -- or public shaming.

Student publications, such as the University of Pittsburgh's Pitt News and Carnegie Mellon University Tartan, use police blotters -- and boast about their entertainment value. The Pitt News names arrestees in roughly half the reported incidents, based on no discernible pattern. (The News editor did not return a call for comment.) The current blotter in the Tartan student newspaper at Carnegie Mellon University, on the other hand, contains no names at all. In an Oct. 11, 2004 editorial, the paper noted that the names of the accused were normally withheld "unless they were given a citation from the city or state, or they are notable members of the campus community."

Some community leaders see the blotters as a diagnostic tool. George Moses, a member of the Hill District Consensus Group, asked local zone police in October about starting a police blotter ahead of the "spike in crime" he expects if a proposal to build a casino in the Hill meets with state approval.

"We would use this as a tool, documenting what is happening with the gaming issue," Moses says. He acknowledges that such blotters usually focus on the lower-level crimes of poorer neighborhoods, but contends that, when used correctly, they can help gauge a neighborhood's health. "I would just go and ask the BGC to be able to also go and document those other crimes of interest ... such as domestic violence," Moses says. "Just focusing on one element doesn't do justice to what we want to do" in the Hill.

The Internet, of course, is the police blotter's latest frontier. For two years, the Chicago police department has posted the names and photographs of men arrested for soliciting prostitutes, along with their partial addresses ("42XX N. Higgins Ave."). The records are accessible, and searchable, for 30 days.

Though the Chicago Police can't provide statistics on repeat arrests, department spokesperson Marcel Bright says, "It seems to be working very effectively for [reducing] repeat offenders."

Are any innocents pictured?

"That's a good question," Bright says. "We must be getting the right people: In our litigation-happy society, somebody would have sued by now."

BGC officials are also convinced their blotter combats crime.

The BGC police blotter, Swartz says, "gives people the idea where the activity is happening, who allegedly is engaging in it."

Garfield's population has dropped over the past 40 years -- a trend Swartz says "is attributable in a large way to the social conditions. If we don't deal with them, in reality they may overrun the community."

Rick Belloli, head of the South Side Local Development Company, says his group doesn't print a police blotter because such efforts better serve places that are "are a little more economically challenged." But it's hard to tell whether such tactics work, he acknowledges. "In community development, it's hard to pin down any particular strategy that works because we're working on so many facets from so many angles."

The Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation's May Bulletin names 26 arrestees -- 23 men and three women. Only 10 of them live in Bloomfield, Garfield, Friendship or East Liberty, the four neighborhoods for which Zone 5 police officer Michael Gay says he provides the BGC crime reports.

A look at the criminal records of all 26 people shows that each was arrested on up to three of the following four charges: possession of drug paraphernalia; possession of marijuana; possession of another, unspecified controlled substance; or possession with intent to distribute or manufacture. Such court records do not list the age or race of arrestees, making a demographic study impossible. But many of those named in the blotter are repeat offenders, and in at least a couple of cases, some of the charges against them were dismissed." (See sidebar, "Arrestee Developments.")

Officer Gay says he has "seen a lot of effect" on the number of repeat offenders since the BGC began publishing its crime blotter. But a connection is hard to prove: Crime rates in the neighborhood have been dropping for a host of offenses, including those the Bulletin does not publicize. (See chart, "Crime and Diminishment.")

Criminologists say the effectiveness of police blotters is unconfirmed.

Juhu Thukral, director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York, says a study of their clients showed that public notice only "pushed the crime off the streets ... and put prostitutes in more violent situations" because of the need to find customers more clandestinely.

"Does publishing the names in newspapers deter crimes or produce chronic offenders?" asks professor Scot Wortley, of the University of Toronto Centre of Criminology. He posits that "publishing names might lead to social stigmatization, which could lead to family problems, job loss or difficulty finding new employment. ... This might cause the offender to become ... socially alienated, et cetera and ultimately contribute to more crime."

The BGC's Swartz sees another possible outcome: Arrests may result in alleged perpetrators having constructive "conversations" with family, employers or neighbors, he says. Listing only gun, drug and prostitution arrests may target one group or another "who falls more routinely into this kind of snare," he acknowledges, " ... but we're not sociologists and we're not apologists for those who get caught."

Nor has public protest changed the BGC's position.

"I guess maybe because it's Garfield, the protesters think [crime] should be accepted," Swartz says. "It wouldn't be accepted in Upper Saint Clair ..."

All of which leaves one question unanswered: Can the police blotter be credited for crime reduction?

"That's a good question," Swartz says. "It's a question I wouldn't presume to have the answer for."

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