On keeping arrests secret

The Post-Star on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to keep arrests secret

Jan. 25

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has included in his 2020 executive budget a proposal to keep arrests secret, which could be the worst idea he has ever had, proposed in the worst possible way.

Important changes in state law — and this change would require amending the state’s Freedom of Information Law — should not be included in the budget. They should be put forward as bills, to be brought up for debate and consideration on their own merits by our representatives in the Legislature.

We have an understanding in this country that arrests are public record, and this is critical for the equal application of justice and for public safety. Allowing the selective release of arrests, which Cuomo’s proposal would do, means allowing favoritism in their disclosure. This happens already, on rare occasions, when police are slow to release details about the arrest of a fellow officer, for example. But Cuomo’s proposal would give police agencies an excuse to withhold information about arrests whenever they chose.

Making arrests and mugshots public may satisfy the curiosity of citizens who want to see if someone they know has been charged with a crime, but it also makes everyone safer. You want to know when a person who lives in your community or your neighborhood has been charged with molesting children, or setting houses on fire, or burglary, or assault.

You want to know what the charge is and what the accused looks like. This is an important part of our system of crime prevention and an important way that citizens stay informed about their communities. The governor should not toss this principle aside just because unscrupulous operators are making money off police mugshots.

These businesses post police booking photos on websites, then charge high fees to take them down. This is a bad business, and if Cuomo wants to go after these operators, we support him.

But you don’t ban $20 bills because, sometimes, they are used to buy illegal drugs. What you do is go after the bad behavior, which is what Cuomo should do with these extortionate websites. Meanwhile, the public’s right to know who has been arrested, and why, must be protected.

We’re not sure how far the governor intends to push this cockamamie idea. Will this affect public access to the state’s sex offender registry, now available online with names, birthdates, criminal convictions, photos and more?

There is a difference between being charged with a crime and being convicted of one. But, frequently, months can pass between arrest and conviction. If the information is not available upon arrest, it will be much more difficult to gather and make public later.

Cuomo has other, better ways to combat the misuse of this information. If he really is as bothered by these abusive websites as he says, then he should direct his attacks at them, not at information that New Yorkers use to keep their families safe.

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