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The public’s right to know

Editor’s note: Be sure to read article and mayor’s response

By Clint Parker

We here at The Tribune noticed a few weeks ago that there was a change to the way we were receiving the weekly arrest reports from the Town of Weaverville.

For years, we received a reporter-friendly, one-page report with all the arrests from the week on it. If there was an arrests of interest like a felony charge, which is more severe than a misdemeanor, we’d ask for the individual arrest report and use it in our weekly arrest report article.

That changed several weeks ago when we just started receiving the arrest reports (See story on page 3). Then we noticed that much of the information about an arrest, such as where it took place and detailed information about the suspect who was arrested, had been redacted from the report.

This is important information. In fact, many towns, cities and counties use the arrest locations to develop interactive online maps to show citizens where the high crime areas are located. Previously detailed accessible information about suspects and their arrests, still available on other department’s arrest reports, are now being withheld by Weaverville.

These recent changes to the way Weaverville releases arrest reports threaten the public’s right to know pertinent information about suspects arrested by the town’s police officers.

Under the direction of Weaverville Town Attorney Jennifer Jackson, recent arrest reports have seen specific, relevant information censored before being passed along to the public.

Jackson’s explanation? “It is important to the Town of Weaverville that each of its departments comply with all applicable laws, including North Carolina’s Public Records Law. Forms and practices are reviewed and revised periodically to ensure proper compliance,” she said. “Recently, the police department reviewed the Public Records Law pertaining to arrests and incident reports and modified the information that it provides in response to public records requests to comply with North Carolina Law.”

Jackson said she wasn’t sure if the redacted suspect information was available anywhere else, even from the county itself. Well, it is, and we can tell you that our research into neighboring municipalities reveals that Weaverville’s reporting practices are more censored than those of its neighboring law enforcement agencies in the county.

It’s extremely odd that the information redacted by Weaverville is still available in Woodfin, Asheville and Buncombe County. In fact, those jurisdictions have the information available to the public online.

One of the main reasons the Tribune still does a weekly arrest report in the paper is that residents don’t have online access to Weaverville’s arrests.

I believe this action by the town attorney is a step in the wrong direction for openness in government reporting. I am taking this opportunity to register our newspaper’s complaint about this new policy, which limits the public’s right to information about crime in their community.

I further call upon Mayor Al Root and the Weaverville town council to reverse Jackson’s new policy, which she says is only complying with state law, when clearly all can see by what other law enforcement agencies are releasing in the way of arrest report information that she has far exceeded the spirit of the law.

This newfound secrecy is far beyond the standard policies of other departments and what is allowed by law. It does nothing to foster the public’s faith in the local government’s transparency and efforts to keep them apprised of information that has clearly been in the public domain for decades.

 

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Clint Parker

Publisher & Editor Weaverville Tribune

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