No – not our Blue Jersey, but rather New Jersey’s men and women in blue who work in our police agencies across the state.
Agencies from the State Police to local Police Departments are using the Internet as a tool to facilitate communications with the citizens they serve. But, as with most advances in the exploitation of new technologies, there are both upsides and downsides in how these new tools are used.
According to Captain Frank Locantore of the Evesham Police Department, the Internet is a valuable tool for reaching out to the community whose only other contact with the police has traditionally been motor vehicle stops or investigations of burglaries. Other than that, he pointed out, most people are unaware of the workload or types of incidents handled by their police agency.
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Burlington County’s largest municipality has joined hundreds of other communities in posting mug shots and other information about people wanted for investigations and people arrested for crimes. According to Captain Locantore, the dissemination of this information is in conformance with New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and the policy has been reviewed by the county prosecutor. And there have been some success stories.
Recently, Evesham has been plagued by the actions of a serial arsonist who had been setting brush fires throughout the town. In one instance, that individual set a brush fire near a school and his actions were recorded by the school’s video surveillance system. The images were posted on the Department’s web site and Facebook page, and that led to the quick apprehension of the alleged arsonist. This case is still being prosecuted.
In another incident, the Department received a tip about a disturbed individual who was planning an attack on a school the following day. It was early evening, too late to get the information to the public on the evening news. After notifying school authorities, the Department put the information out to its 7,000 Facebook subscribers, and the suspect was in police custody by 1:00 AM that evening. The same communications channels were then used to inform the public that it was safe to send their kids to school the next day, and attendance actually was higher than normal.
Captain Locantore pointed out that traditional methods of notification, such as articles in the local newspapers, are still used, but are not as effective as use of the Internet. Other high-tech solutions like Reverse 911 are under consideration, but are more costly to police departments whose budgets are already under considerable stress.
Naturally, with the good comes some bad. While public access to mug shots and arrest records has been with us for a long time, the posting of this information on the Internet adds another dimension. The same information that is used to aid the police in their mission to protect the public can also be used to abridge the rights of those later acquitted, and make it more difficult for the guilty to re-integrate into society after they have served their time.
Unlike Wanted Posters in post offices, mug shots on the Internet are permanent. Using powerful search engines, prospective employers and school admissions offices can easily determine an individual’s arrest record – even for those acquitted. There’s the possibility that this information can be used to discriminate against innocent people, despite the fact that police departments such as Evesham post prominent notices on their sites about the presumption of innocence. In addition, Evesham does not remove mug shots of those individuals acquitted, and even if they did, it would not have a significant impact. Sites such as the Internet Archive Wayback Machine can bring up information long after its original poster has removed it.
So there’s a balance to be struck between using the Internet as a law enforcement tool and an individual’s rights. We’ve seen examples such as the so-called “Patriot” Act, where people’s constitutional rights are thrown in the trash bin in the name of national security. But the posting of mug shots and arrest records on line is a bit more complicated. In carrying out their difficult mission, the police need to use every legal tool at their disposal to remove dangerous individuals from our streets. But the police are not perfect, and innocent people do get arrested and acquitted, and their records, while they may be expunged from the judicial system, are forever engraved in the world-wide Internet repository – easily searchable by anyone with either benign or malicious intent.
This is a difficult problem, and there’s no easy legislative solution. But there are some actions that can be taken to mitigate the damage:
- The legislature should pass a law making it illegal to use on-line arrest records to discriminate against job applicants. Records of conviction are fair game, but prospective employers should be required to abide by the presumption of innocence.
- Similar legislation should be introduced and passed to prohibit discrimination in college applications based solely on arrest (as opposed to conviction) records.
- Law enforcement agencies should be required to remove information from their internet sites pertaining to those individuals who are arrested and subsequently acquitted.
The Evesham Police do listen to the public and they are continually striving to improve their communications. They no longer post mug shots for DUI arrests and they carefully monitor their Facebook page to remove comments from the general public regarding individual suspects.
While there is no easy solution to this dilemma, civil rights groups, law enforcement, and the legislature need to work together to continually find the right balance to preserve individuals’ rights while keeping the public safe.