We often receive criticisms from commenters and law enforcement officials about our policy in regards to printing the description of a suspect's race, and some may have been surprised today to see that we did include that piece of information in a story about an armed robbery in Ventura.
This was not a capricious decision, and I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss it.
The reason our policy is generally to avoid including race in suspect descriptions is we feel many descriptions are too vague to actually help people identify a suspect, and including race in a broad description can be more problematic than useful. We do include it, as we did in this case, when there is enough specific description to really narrow the field of possible suspects.
So, how do we think about the question of when race is a useful piece of information and when it is not?
Here's an example:
If a witness said he or she saw a white man of medium height and with a slim build walk into a store, that wouldn't narrow the field of possible suspects enough to merit the inclusion of race. It might contribute more to undue suspicion being placed on some of the thousands of people matching that description than to helping police arrest the perpetrator.
If, however, a witness described a white man with long black hair and a goatee, about 5' 11," 150 pounds and green eyes with a scar on his left cheek and wearing a button-down shirt and slacks, readers would have enough information to narrow the field of possible suspects to a much smaller group. In that case, race would be relevant and helpful because it is one part of a very specific description.
Now let's look at today's article about the robberies in Ventura:
Police said witnesses described the robber this way: A black man with dark eyes, who was about 30 years old, 6 feet 3 inches tall, 220 pounds and wearing a dark hooded sweatshirt and black warm-up pants.
We decided that was specific enough and unique enough to include race in the article.
However, in two robberies in Ventura on March 27, witnesses described the suspects as men in their 20s with thin and medium builds wearing dark sweatshirts with dark shorts or pants. Race was included in that description but we did not publish it because we decided it was not specific enough. There could be thousands of men of a certain skin color in their 20s with a medium build, and even clothes don't narrow the field of potential suspects that much.
One reason we are cautious about printing racial descriptions is that there are potentially negative ramifications of using race as a descriptor. Unlike, say, height, race is not a hard and fast descriptor, and using it without other specific details could lead to profiling that negatively effects people and doesn't really help police, we believe.
Sometimes a person's ethnic background is relatively easy to identify, but sometimes not.
A large percentage of Ventura County's population is Hispanic, so it is relevant to look at some potential issues with using that word in a suspect description.
People of hispanic descent could have roots in North America, South America or Europe (remember, the word indicates of Spanish or Latin American descent), and they can have skin tones that can range from white to black.
For some examples of how different hispanic people can look, take a look at pictures of President Felipe Calderón of Mexico, President Evo Morales of Bolivia, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of Spain.
Ask yourself, if you saw Zapatero or Calderón on the street (without an entourage), would you say they were white or hispanic?
If you saw Morales or Chavez on the street, would you know at a glance that they are latino and not, say, pacific islander or south Asian?
These are challenging questions, and I pose them to explain why we are cautious about the situations in which we include race in crime stories.