Vermont State Police Rewrite Press Rules To Withhold As Much Information As Possible

from the close-to-the-vest dept

Various authority figures have attempted to define journalism, usually excluding their critics. A recent post here covered a police chief who decided he could determine a journalist’s credibility based almost solely on their web presence. Trimming down the definition of “journalist” allows government officials to limit their accountability by treating only certain outlets as credible.

So, we already have government authorities attempting to define what is or isn’t a “real” news outlet. Jonathan Peters of the Columbia Journalism Review reports a government authority is attempting to define what is or isn’t news. In this case, it’s the Vermont State Police.

It recently revised a “Press Release and Public Information Policy” that provides guidance for police officers regarding how, what, and when information should be given to the press and public. The revisions came in July, and local journalists aren’t happy.

“The policy leaves it up to individual state troopers to determine what is news and what isn’t,” Michael Donoghue, the executive director of the Vermont Press Association, tells CJR. “Crimes, including sexual assaults, armed robberies, arsons, burglaries, embezzlements, drugs, and more are not required to be disclosed. Vermonters want to know if they are safe in their homes and out on the streets.

The new policy [PDF] prefers ambiguity to clarity and transparency. Worse, it allows officers and police officials to make subjective calls on newsworthiness, which is obviously going to make policing the police that much more difficult. This part is particularly problematic, as it restricts dissemination of information to that which is subjectively defined as “significant public interest.”

Press releases will be issued as soon as practicable for significant incidents of public interest, including, but not limited to arrests, citations, road closures, hazardous scenes and motor vehicle crashes.

Beyond that, VSP will withhold all info that “could identify” victims of crimes. This would include those who are on the receiving end of criminal activity by law enforcement officers. As Peters points out, this may nod to privacy, but does very little for public safety. (Not to mention accountability…) This would allow officers to withhold information that might be actually useful to the public, like the areas where repeated criminal activity is being observed.

Even as it places more limits on dissemination, the State Police is playing up its supposed “consultation” with local journalists when revising its policy. That’s as much of a sham as the new policy.

While the police say they consulted the press (the state public-safety head wrote in a July letter-to-the-editor that the police “met with and had several discussions with and solicited input from” local journalists), the press association didn’t receive a final draft of the revisions before they were implemented.

Donoghue says the formal consultation amounted to one meeting with two officials. Another press association leader then asked to meet with the public-safety head, who hadn’t attended the meeting except to offer a brief welcome. That request wasn’t granted, and there was no follow-up meeting involving the press.

When asked directly about the changes (and their tendency to make dissemination of information even less likely), the Police spokesman offered up some talking points, but little in the way of clarity. He told Waterman the policy tries to strike a balance between the public’s right to know and individual privacy and the integrity of criminal investigations. The spokesman also pointed to the department’s 14 press releases a day as evidence that it’s all over this transparency thing. But, as is pointed out by the policy’s critics, 14 releases a day isn’t much when there are more than 300 officers on staff. The VSP issues press releases for things like driving with a suspended license and other misdemeanors. If this minutia is supposed to be evidence of transparency, what are the other 300 officers doing with their time?

The faux consultation and the broad language attempt to disguise the self-interested policy rewriting. Law enforcement agencies are rarely paragons of transparency. The new rules the State Police wrote itself with almost zero consultation will only serve to keep more information out of the public’s hands.

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Comments on “Vermont State Police Rewrite Press Rules To Withhold As Much Information As Possible”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Not all bad

  • Beyond that, VSP will withhold all info that "could identify" victims of crimes. This would include those who are on the receiving end of criminal activity by law enforcement officers.*

So on the bright side, this means when the police unlawfully kill a private citizen, we won’t immediately hear how He had prior arrests (not convictions!), He was a known troublemaker, etc.

Who Cares says:

They work for us"

The usual dodge is no comment because of an ongoing investigation, which usually lasts longer than the interest of those who inquire.

Here in Salt Lake City a major street, State Street, was shut down (several blocks, i.e., closed) for seven hours following the fatal shooting by police of a black man riding a bicycle at ten o’clock at night about a month ago.

The short one paragraph “news” reported in the local paper (Tribune) did not identify the vic’s name or provide any details (who, what, etc.) or why it was necessary to close a major street for hours, or cite the threat of a man on a bicycle posedse to kill a bike rider.

Was the vic fleeing a crime? Nada.

No information provided then, or subsequently.

I did a follow up search of the same paper and with other (so-called) “news” sources as a follow-up. Nothing. No information. No accountability. Nothing.

A local nurse was recently roughed up by a police officer for refusing his request to take blood from an unconscious man. Since then there has been days/weeks/months of non-stop coverage and details… 24/7.

But no info re: the unnamed man on a bike, resulting in a street closure for many hours. Go figure.

I did not and will not contact the police for follow-up information. My last contact with them was when my bicycle worth several hundred dollars was stolen from the local library (cable was sawed off as bystanders watched, as I later learned). When I later called the police to provide a s/n for the bike, the guy I spoke with said, in effect, to get lost. He was not interested in the serial number or anything other information, even though the value of the stolen bike was worth more than many cars on the road.

Back to main topic. No accountability… due to ongoing investigation.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

A coup d'état in progress

One might hope, while we watch as law enforcement departments and agencies disconnect from all channels of accountability and openly disobey policies from their superiors in favor of their own, and police officers rob and murder the people with literal impunity (more killer officers were acquitted today), that there would be a clear point where too much was too much.

We might start a commission and investigate intra-agency disobedience and dissent.

We might declare agencies as rogue.

We might disband them, or purge them by force, as necessary.

But none of these indicators or processes are happening. Nobody is doing anything even when there’s no accountability, no justice, no adherence to reasonable policy.

If it takes too long, we may just find out one day that entire counties of the US public have been weimarred.

That’s a thing now. To weimar as a verb.

Don’t get weimarred.

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