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Friday, March 13, 2009

Readers Poll: Site Confidentiality Guidelines

Poll Results
Currently, the confidentiality guidelines I've established for this site are that when I receive a report of police misconduct by an individual I treat it confidentially and will not repeat what I've been told to anyone unless that person gives me express permission to share the information he or she has sent and has stated whom I may or may not share that information with. (whether that be lawyers who may be interested in helping or by posting a story about the complaint on the site).

Lately, though, it's been hard to keep some of these to myself because the allegations I hear from some people are very disturbing and, if true, really do need to be released to the public... but, I still keep them to myself out of principle, I do that in order to protect victims of police misconduct from retaliation and to protect them from further abuse that can be caused by public scruitiny. (the favorite tactic of the police when a misconduct case goes public is to do a character assassination on the person alleging abuse, it's not pleasant to go through that, trust me.)

So, I'm sort of at a crux because, when I reply to emails people send me and explain what I can and can't do to help and what our policies are about publishing stories, I don't get a response. I have reason to believe that it's partially because the site's email address has been put on spam blacklists by some of the more tech-savvy law enforcement department employees in the area as the emails I send from here end up in the spam folder of a few of the accounts I've tested.

Anyway... the point is... Should I change the site's confidentiality policy to default to sharing any information sent unless the sender explicitly states that they don't want the information shared like a regular reporter would do? Or should I keep the policy as it is and only share information when the person who reported it gives permission to make it public?

It's a tough call for me... I want to go under the assumption that people want their stories told when they write me and that the public really needs to hear about some of these more serious cases, but I also want to make certain that I don't do more harm than good by sharing anyone's story with the public.

So, why don't you tell me what you think I should do?

Mind you, I won't necessarily abide by the poll results, but I may take into consideration any convincing arguments for one side or the other.

In the meantime... my lips are sealed.


Anonymous said...

Unless of course they specifically ask for confidentiality, I think you should share the stories. Maybe you could change both the major and minor details and leave the story as vague as possible? Imo one of many reasons things have gotten as bad as they are is that 1) people suffer in silence and 2) the general population is unaware of just HOW BAD the cops really are. Additionally it might help other victims of swine to know that they are not alone.

Packratt said...

If I were to change the policy I would probably try to change our contact link from a mailto: into a form of some sort that would state the policy and have some sort of check box or some prompt to let the sender have the option to submit information confidentially.

There are some reasons why people don't want their story public but they still write to get advice or find information about where to get help, or just to be able to get what happened to them off their chest to someone who isn't going to refuse to believe they were abused just because it was a cop who did it to them.

Otherwise, as I said, some of these stories people are telling me are just so disturbing and horrendous that I feel I have to say something... but, I can't turn back and release that info after I specifically said I wouldn't, even if I think they might not have received my reply for whatever reason, that's just unethical.

There are other reasons I set the policy as it is though, the main one is to protect victims from further retribution. A common tactic here in Seattle is for police to let their victims go... but if they try to tell others about what happened they'll find themselves facing unexpected charges weeks or even months after their encounter with the police.

Even if I pull most of the details, like all the names and the dates, an officer can still recognize the story and will know who they did what to by the details released.

So, there is the potential of harm that could come out of my reversing my policy... so it's a conflict of my role as an advocate for the victims of police abuses and my role as an advocate for more police accountability and transparency.

It's a tough call.

Thanks for the comment and for letting me know what your take on it is, I appreciate it!

Five Before Midnight said...

I think it's a hard balance but you do a really good job. I go with confidentiality if they wish that. Sometimes it's full confidentiality. Sometimes it's tell the story but leave details and names out of it that are identifying (which is easier in some cases than in others). And sometimes, tell the story and use the name but only if the person says or states that this is what they want.

It's very hard at times like you say to keep the bad accounts inside to yourself, because they are bad. I've got some like that, community and internally. And it's hard sometimes, because the advocate part of you wants justice done or if not justice, exposure but that's not always possible at that time. But the fact that people do come forward and share their stories when otherwise they won't, does say a lot in that the site is doing what it's intended to do as an advocate and an exposure of misconduct. It emboldens people to share their confidences and a part of that is feeling safe to do so, and that's important like you said to keep in mind when creating policy addressing these comments or emails.

Packratt said...

Thanks FBM, and you're right, it's a balancing act and it's a hard one to accomplish at that. I can only hope that I'm doing it right as there aren't really any guidelines or rulebooks for me to follow and there really isn't anyone who can give me any advice from experience.

It's all sort of going by feel, so we'll see what happens I guess and go from there.

Thanks for the comment and the vote of confidence, I appreciate it!

Carlos Miller said...

If people contact you to tell you their story, it is most likely because they want you to publish it.

I operate under the assumption that when people talk to me, it is on the record.

But I do make it clear that when I am interviewing them, that I plan to write about it. I think it's pretty much obvious because it's not like I'm a priest in a confession booth.

There are some things they want to keep off the record and I abide by their wishes.

However, if it is something that I believe would be beneficial to their story by keeping it on the record, I try to explain why and they usually agree with me.

Packratt said...

Thanks for letting me know how you handle it, Carlos. That's pretty handy to hear since you have experience as a journalist.

Thanks for taking the time to write, I appreciate it!

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