Town withholding info from public

Editor’s note: Since the publishing of this story in the paper, Weaverville Mayor Al Root took credit as the author of the new policy (see letter below) on information released by the police department. Also read commentary.

By Benjamin Cohn

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

Amy Buchanan, administrative assistant for the Weaverville Police Department, told The Tribune that she wasn’t allowed to reveal specific information about those arrested by Weaverville Police, such as suspects’ dates of birth or identifying features like height, weight, hair color, race, nationality and more.

Asked why information that had been available to the public for years was now being redacted from the arrest reports, Buchanan said the change had come down from Town Attorney Jackson.
Asked about the limited amount of information the town was now releasing, Jackson told the Tribune, “It is important to the Town of Weaverville that each of its departments to comply with all applicable laws, including North Carolina’s Public Records Law. Forms and practices are reviewed and revised periodically to ensure proper compliance.

“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,” she explained.

Jackson said she wasn’t sure if the redacted, or censored, suspect information was available anywhere else, even from the county itself.

Research into neighboring municipalities reveals that Weaverville’s reporting practices are more tight-lipped than those of others in the law enforcement agencies in the area.

The Town of Woodfin’s P2C (Police to Community) database allows for detailed searches of recent incidents, complete with all the auxiliary information including where the arrest took place, race, date of birth, and physical characteristics now being redacted by Weaverville. Likewise, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department and the Asheville Police Department are also releasing more information on their arrestees than Weaverville.

For instance, Woodfin Police arrested Jason Edmonds, 42, along I-26 East’s Exit 25 ramp, on June 2 for possession of stolen goods. Potentially-crucial information, like the facts that he’s missing his left eye and he goes by “Macho,” even his phone number, is provided.

Asheville’s P2C program is equally thorough and detailed in its reporting practices. Anyone in the public could find Derek Sparks Lafferty’s recent arrest report, which shows he was picked up by Asheville Police at 165 South French Broad Avenue by Officer R. D. Crume on a misdemeanor charge of First Degree Trespassing.
Without such a detailed report, we wouldn’t know that Lafferty is six feet tall, weighs 170 pounds and has salt and pepper colored hair. We wouldn’t know that he was arrested two days before his birthday, June 3, 1973, or that he’s from Brownwood, Texas.

Contrast this detailed information with the limited data now provided by the Town of Weaverville. Just recently we reported on the arrest of Michael Schultz, also picked up for trespassing.
The difference is, Schultz was arrested by Weaverville Police, which means his report will be missing the vital information enjoyed by residents of nearby municipalities. Readers won’t learn Schultz’ birthday or anything about his physical appearance. We know his age, 47, and his sex, male, but we have no clue as to his body type, hair color or style, race, nationality, tattoos, or who employs him.

Should Shultz have been the suspect in a more serious case, reporting all the facts surrounding him would be crucial, but now with Weaverville’s new policy unavailable.

Letter to editor: Mayor response to article and commentary

I am writing in response to an article and editorial in last week’s Tribune concerning the Town’s policy on releasing information on arrests. I would first like to correct the misimpression that our Town Attorney authored the change in policy. While her expertise was relied upon as to the legality and wording of the policy, this change was initiated at my request for the reasons stated below. Those who disagree with the change should question my judgment, not hers.

My direction for a change in policy springs from a strong commitment to the concept that one is innocent until proven guilty. Having spent four years as a prosecutor in Brooklyn, I am not a starry-eyed idealist when it comes to the need for law enforcement. However, I do not believe the Town should take any action that smacks of publicizing the mere act of arresting an individual.

When I learned that the Town was preparing what looked to me like a special release describing each arrest for the sole purpose of providing it to the Tribune, I asked that the practice stop. I believe that the information available to the general public should be available to the Tribune, but the Town should not be packaging it for publication.

In its role as public watchdog, the Tribune has raised issues as to whether the Town has swung too far and is providing too little information, and I will be happy to look into this further with our staff. I agree that our citizens have a need to know where crimes are being committed, that our arrest patterns do not suggest discriminatory law enforcement, and that they can have trust in their public servants. There must be a proper flow of information to assure good government.

But I further believe that this should be done within an environment that respects the right of every American to put the government to its proof in a court of law before that American is branded a criminal. I am confident that we can accomplish both ends.

Al Root

Mayor of Weaverville

Editor’s note: All arrest reports end with the following sentence: The Tribune reminds its readers that all suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. It should also be noted this week that the absence of an arrest report from Weaverville is because they reported no arrest from 6/10 to 6/16. We at the Tribune welcome Mayor Root’s revisit of the town’s new policy.

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Clint Parker

Publisher & Editor Weaverville Tribune

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