A little before noon yesterday, there came a press release from the office of the police chief.
It was about a prostitution detail from the night before.
Six people with female first names, and one person with a male first name. They were 20 to 41, most lived in the city, and one was listed as homeless.
And there were their names.
Printed up and sent out by the police department, to me and a few dozen others, to be turned into stories or ignored, as each reporter decided.
I’ve seen such lists for the 35 years I’ve been a newsman, and never thought much about them.
But this one struck me different.
As I scanned it for familiar names – and, sadly, there are familiar names – I wondered why.
As a matter of public policy, why do the police send out this list of arrestees? Under the procedures of law enforcement and the ethics of journalism, why was I looking at a list of people charged with a non-violent misdemeanor?
When something is different, you ask why. When one set of circumstances is handled differently than another set of circumstances, in our system of equal protection under law, there needs to be a reason.
And I can’t think of one.
Nor can I think of any other misdemeanor charge that routinely brings with it a press release with your name in it. Some major felonies against property – robbing a bank or something – sure.Violent felonies against a person – sometimes, if they’re out of the ordinary. Homicides, yes.
But not misdemeanors.
Unless it’s prostitution.
In which case, being publicly identified as an alleged prostitute carries with it an extra humiliation because of the stigma or shame typically associated with it. In some corners of the community conscience, there is extra moral failure attached to this particular offense.
And almost to drive that point home, the police department sends out a list of the names of the accused.
Not just charged, but also shamed.
Certainly, the names are a public record. They are somewhere in the arraignment docket, and enterprising reporters could find them there, if they want them – with the dozens of other arrestees for other offenses whose names aren’t put in police press releases.
Open courts require public prosecution, and we cherish that as a protection of the accused and a check on the power of government.
But there’s an awful lot in the public record that doesn’t get drawn to the attention of the public in a press release.
Is prostitution so odious that a deviation from normal procedure is warranted? Yes, prostitution does drag down a neighborhood, but so do code violations. Is it out of some puritanical revulsion at what some consider a crime of sex?
Is it because we think the public shaming will be deter women and men from becoming prostitutes?
Do we think that prostitutes are bad guys?
If so, I think we’re getting it wrong.
Because nobody stands out there on Lyell Avenue doing favors for disgusting, dysfunctional men for the thrill of it. They are there because everything else in their life is broken and, driven by addiction or a pimp who will beat them to death, they have to be there. They dance on life’s last thread, needing to feed their addiction or placate a pimp.
It’s horrible and heartbreaking. Thinking about it makes you cry. Living through it must be a hell.
These people are as destitute and devastated as you will find.
They are in need of help.
And we’re sending out their names?
To humiliate them – and their families? To mollify neighborhood activists by doing one more prostitution detail on the same street we’ve been doing prostitution details on for decades?
Arresting these people is good – it may save their lives and get them the services they need, and it does comfort neighbors. The police are right to enforce this law.
But we don’t need the list of names. If reporters or politicians or activists have created the impression that such a list is wanted or appropriate, we have been wrong. Those who want to know the names can look them up in public records. But they don’t need to land uninvited in the email accounts of reporters all across town.
Unless the new policy of the police department is going to be to similarly send out press releases and names for every misdemeanor charged in the city.
Otherwise, we don’t need to know these people’s names. We can pray for them without that information.
God will know who we’re talking about.