Race in suspect descriptions

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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.

Disclosure

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I noticed with interest last week that we had many comments on our web site about the fact that the Star's attorney is also representing former Sheriff's deputy Claudia Valenciana, in whose home former Oxnard police officer Robert Perez Jr. was found fatally stabbed. (Ex-fiancée hires attorney after Perez stabbing)

 It's not my place to talk about the substance of comments, but the level of interest brings up a point about why I included a detail in the article about Mr. Ron Bamieh's work for the Star:

 Even when an association or relationship does not pose an actual conflict of interest, we as journalists are supposed to report it if it could create even the perception of such an issue.

 Transparency allows people to form informed opinions about what they are reading. That's also why we source things to tell readers where information comes from.

 You as a reader might give different credence to information that comes from court documents filed by a plaintiff, a police chief known as tough on crime, a non-profit dedicated to prison reform, etc., so as a journalist, I do my best to let you know where information comes from so you can make your own decisions about how to understand the facts I present.

 Of course, in certain situations journalists do use anonymous or unnamed sources, and it's not going to be possible or necessary in every story to give the life history of every source and his or her associations. In this high profile story, I felt that the detail was important to include, and it clearly was of interest to a number of people.

 For more discussion about disclosure and other topics, take a look at the Society of Professional Journalist's code of ethics:

SPJ Code of Ethics

Rumor

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Rumors are mercurial beasts.

Here's an example from yesterday morning (2/12):

We got several concerned calls from readers about an incident at the Mormon Church on Sinaloa Road in Simi Valley.

First someone called saying there was massive police presence there. That was true, but when I called early in the morning, the Simi Valley police watch commander didn't yet have any reports from investigators.

Later I learned from police a person had died what appeared to be a natural death. (Police were initially concerned there might have been foul play in this case, but they later determined there was none.)

We don't generally report natural deaths, so that's where my reporting stopped.

Later we heard a rumor was circulating about a naked woman found dead at the church.

That was far from the truth. Police told my breaking news colleague that a janitor was in the bathroom when he apparently had some kind of heart problem that killed him.

The rumor we heard was not an extremely outlandish one, but it shows how quickly details passed from one person to another can be twisted and misconstrued. One more good reason to check facts.

This incident also reminds me of one strange thing about news itself: Death is a big story when it's intentional or accidental (or if the person who died was a public figure), but otherwise it's no story at all for a newspaper.

That doesn't mean it's any less important. This one incident that barely made our radar (and then only because of curiosity and rumor), but it was the end of someone's life, and that's significant by any standard.

Pedeferri's journal

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The story of CHP Officer Tony Pedeferri's traumatic injuries when he was struck by an intoxicated driver while on duty and his dramatic recovery have garnered tremendous public attention.

We have written numerous articles about Pedeferri, but like any story, this one has far more details than we could fit into any one piece.

When I was writing a story in July about Officer Pedeferri's return home, I discovered an online journal that he and his family were keeping.

Written largely by Pedeferri's brother, with entries from Officer Pedeferri as he became stronger, the journal offers a very detailed, personal look into the family's long ordeal.

Have a look:

http://www.caringbridge.org/cb/viewJournal.do?method=executeInit

Also see our articles about Officer Pedeferri:

Called to a new duty

Officer speaks at White's sentencing

http://www.venturacountystar.com/news/2008/jul/30/driver-pleads-guilty-in-fatal-101-crash-that/

http://www.venturacountystar.com/news/2008/jul/03/injured-chp-officer-home-after-6-months-of/

http://www.venturacountystar.com/news/2008/apr/02/forensic-experts-say-drugs-found-in-drivers/

http://www.venturacountystar.com/news/2007/dec/21/chp-officer-remains-in-critical-condition/

Additional views

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The Ventura City Fire Department frequently sends us photos from the incidents they handle, and while we don't generally publish those in the paper, they can be very interesting.

I received three photos today about an incident involving a child who had to be extricated from a vehicle after his father crashed into a parked semi truck. (Police believe he was driving drunk: http://www.venturacountystar.com/news/2008/dec/31/dui-suspected-in-crash/)

I am including all three below.

Take a look:

semicar1.jpg 



semicar2.jpg


semicar3.jpg

The tip of the iceberg

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As I was driving back to the office yesterday from Uriel Loya-Bucio's funeral mass in Oxnard, I began thinking about what I learned and what I didn't.

I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let's back up:

Loya-Bucio was gunned down in front of his 10-year-old son Monday night near Durazo Auto Sales in Oxnard, where he worked.

My colleague, John Scheibe, spoke to Loya-Bucio's son and brother next day when he went to the business.

By contacting the family on Wednesday through Loya-Bucio's former employer, I learned about the funeral mass and got permission to attend with a photographer.

When I arrived shortly before the service was scheduled to begin, I found a small group of people clustered outside Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Oxnard.

They were standing quietly and didn't look like they wanted to be bothered. Just inside the church, people were taking turns looking into Loya-Bucio's coffin and embracing family members, some of whom were wailing with grief.

This was not the time to jump into the fray with a notebook, I felt, and I didn't.

During the mass, the priest spoke about prayer, faith and forgiveness. He spoke about loss and heaven, but there was no eulogy.

After the service, the devastation this killing wrought on the family was palpable.

As the hearse pulled away carrying the coffin, a woman another relative described as Loya-Bucio's wife cried out in anguish, over and over.

I waited. When the hearse was gone, I approached a man in the back of the group, who turned out to be Loya-Bucio's uncle. I spoke to him and a few friends and associates of the 32-year-old homicide victim. They talked to me generally, saying he was a good, happy, hardworking man, and soon took off. While I was speaking to them, most of the others had left, too. The family was preparing to accompany Loya-Bucio's body to Mexico.

This made me think about the story as an iceberg.

I had seen the tip of the iceberg, but there was obviously much more to Loya-Bucio's life and to the tale of how his tragic death altered his family.

I'm sure that's the case in every tragedy I report on.

How could it not be? Often still in the fog of shock and disbelief when I contact them, survivors of murder and accident victims are processing grief that could take months, years or a lifetime to come to terms with.

I've spoken with survivors of murder victims who make frequent pilgrimages to the cemetery and even the scene of their loved one's death years after their tragedies.

Loya-Bucio's killing was the 26th homicide in Ventura County this year alone. I usually have a matter of hours to report and write articles about these incidents.

In this context, the reality is that many stories about tragedies are only a glimpse into the earthshaking realities they represent for the people involved.

But even if reporters are only able to offer a glimpse of these human experiences along with as many accurate facts as we can gather about the incidents themselves, I think we're helping people understand their communities and each other. And that, simply put, is one of the ways I define my job.

Why good news is small news -- usually

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We in the media are media are sometimes accused of focusing only on bad news, and while I wouldn't agree entirely, it's true that bad news is generally big news: natural disasters, economic meltdowns, killings, tragedy ... you get the picture.

Good news can be big news, but the little pieces of good news often slip through the cracks, unnoticed.

Several conversations I had yesterday gave me a chance to articulate why that is, and I wanted to share them with you.

While I was interviewing Battalion Chief Don McPherson about the April 11 fire in the 200 block of Drexel Avenue in Ventura that seriously burned one man and destroyed a home, he told me a detail that surprised me: A fire captain who was fighting the fire fell through the roof of the home while it was burning (and while authorities were searching the home for people they believed might be trapped). The captain got stuck on a rafter, and another firefighter pulled him out just seconds before flames burst through the hole in the roof. It also turned out that no one was still in the house at the time.

If a firefighter had been seriously injured or killed in the blaze, that would have been huge news because of the human tragedy, the rarity and the heroic context of the incident.

The fact that that didn't happen is great news, but we never heard about it.

That's one of the cruxes of this conundrum: when bad stuff happens, we usually hear about it and it's big news, and when bad stuff is narrowly avoided, we often don't hear about it, so it goes generally unnoticed.

Even if we do hear about potential bad things that don't happen, they would be smaller news than if something tragic did happen. Take the firefighter example: If someone had told me when I wrote the original story about the house fire that a firefighter narrowly escaped injury, that might have been one dramatic angle in the story but it would probably be little more, because it's a story about something bad that could have happened but didn't. Maybe such a story would lead to another story about firefighter safety, but it wouldn't be the huge story it would be if the firefighter was actually hurt.

Interestingly enough, I heard two other good news stories yesterday about potential bad things that didn't materialize.

When I was talking to Chief McPherson, he brought up a school bus crash that happened the previous day. The California Highway Patrol reported that the bus overturned when the driver swerved to avoid a collision and hit an embankment, but the driver was not injured and no one else was on board.

Since no one was hurt, I wrote a brief. McPherson told me he responded to that crash and learned that a large number of students had gotten off the bus minutes before the crash. He was thinking about how bad the crash could have been if kids were still on board.

Again, that incident could have been disastrous but wasn't,  so it was small news. It would be hard to report on things that didn't happen, and even if we decided it would be appropriate to do so, it would be nearly impossible because of the time involved.

Think about this: My beat, which I cover mostly with one colleague with occasional help from others, includes much of the crime, weather, natural disasters, law enforcement, public safety and accident news in the county. To find out about all the potentially bad things that didn't happen, I would have to spend lots of time thoroughly reporting small incidents that don't turn out to be big issues, which would be basically impossible.

But situations where bad news is avoided are interesting, and potentially important.

Take another example: I wrote another brief yesterday about a truck crash that blocked traffic on Highway 126. Only minor injuries were reported, but as I talked to a CHP sergeant who was on scene, I learned that the accident bore a frightening resemblance to a tragic crash that happened several months ago.

This was the situation: Several trucks and trailers with oil field equipment were parked on the side of Highway 126 in Ventura for repairs. They had safety warning devices out, said Sgt. Joseph Davy of the CHP.

Then a truck carrying U.S. mail drifted onto the shoulder and struck one of the trailers, setting off a chain-reaction. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt.

Hearing about the crash reminded me of a similar accident on Highway 126 that was tragic. On Sept. 4, a truck drifted onto the shoulder of Highway 126 between Santa Paula and Ventura then careened into a group of men doing court ordered community service, killing one and critically injuring another. In that case, a truck was parked behind the crew to protect it, but the truck missed it, hitting the crew instead.

So now that you know a little more about why bad news is usually big news and good news often isn't, I have a suggestion for you: We always appreciate calls about news, be it good or bad. If there's a piece of good news that didn't get reported, it's likely that we never heard about it, so if you want to read more good news, please tell us if you hear about any.

Here are links to the stories I mentioned:

http://www.venturacountystar.com/news/2008/sep/04/nnxxfccrash05/

http://www.venturacountystar.com/news/2008/nov/19/truck-carrying-mail-crashes-trailer/

http://www.venturacountystar.com/news/2008/nov/18/no-one-injured-when-school-bus-overturns/


Take care out there,

Adam

Have you seen this man?

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Have you seen this man with a shaved head?

searching.JPG

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If you have, Ventura police would like to hear from you.

Police are asking for information about this man, whose image was captured by security cameras at Beachwarmer Bar in Ventura on the night of Oct. 31.

He is a "person of interest" in a fight that left a 47-year-old Ventura man in a coma, police said.

The fight began about 11:40 p.m. when a woman involved in a domestic dispute with the victim threw a chair, said Sgt. Rick Murray of the Ventura police. The woman left and bar patrons who apparently thought the chair was thrown at them confronted the Ventura man.

The confrontation spilled outside and the Ventura man was punched. He hit the ground, hit his head and was taken to a local hospital, where he remained in a coma Tuesday.

Police encourage anyone with information about the person of interest to contact Det. Jon Castellanos at  339-4328.



Good news in car crash

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Even though I'm a writer by trade, I'll admit that this picture is worth a bucket of words.

sbcrash102908.jpg

The good news is that the people in this car are OK. The CHP reported that the 58-year-old driver and the 8-year-old girl in her car suffered only abrasions and complaints of pain. In a prepared statement, CHP officials said their seatbelts "undoubtedly" saved their lives.

Here's the press release:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

SANTA BARBARA AREA CHP

THREE VEHICLE COLLISION RUNS ONE OF THE VEHICLES OFF THE ROAD AND OVER A CLIFF.

On Wednesday, October 29, 2008, at approx. 0730 hrs, CHP, fire and ambulance personnel received a call of a three vehicle collision, southbound US-101, north of Evans ave.
Responding units arrived on scene to find three vehicles involved with one approximately 100 feet over the edge of a cliff on the west side of the roadway.
Patrick Joerger, 23, of Ventura was driving his 2005 Chevy Express van, southbound US-101, north of Evans Ave. in the left hand #1 lane, at approx. 60-65 mph. A Toyota Highlander (Unk. Year), driven by Etelina Figueroa, 58, of Carpinteria, was southbound US-101, in the left hand #1 lane directly in front of Mr. Joerger's van. A 2002 GMC Sierra, towing a woodchipper, driven by Nicolas Pinedo, 47, of Ventura, was southbound US-101, in the right hand #2 lane, directly next to Mr. Joerger and Ms. Figueroa.
Mr. Joerger's van struck the rear of the Highlander, sending the Highlander out of control. The Highlander crossed the #2 lane and the right shoulder before plummeting over a large cliff, coming to rest on its roof near the railroad tracks. This impact caused Mr. Joerger to lose control of his van and it also crossed into the #2 lane and struck Mr. Pinedo's GMC Sierra. Both vehicles came to rest on the right shoulder of southbound US-101.
Ms. Figueroa and her 8 year-old female passenger were transported to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital with complaints of pain and abrasions, with Ms. Figueroa being admitted for observation. Both were wearing seatbelts which undoubtedly saved their lives. Mr. Pinedo was also transported to Cottage hospital with complaints of pain, treated and released. Mr. Joerger also sustained minor injuries.
Alcohol/drugs were not a factor in this collision. 




Jail versus prison

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Writing today's article about inmate voting reminded me that I wanted to explain the difference between jail and prison.

Before I started working the police beat, I thought jail and prison were synonyms. That's a common misperception.

If jail and prison were being described in one of those SAT analogies, the question might look like this:

JAIL is to PRISON as COUNTY is to
a)    world
b)    country
c)    state
d)    elephant
e)    all of the above

Answer: C - State.

County sheriff's departments operate jails, which house people after they are arrested, while awaiting trial, and for shorter sentences.

Prisons house people who are convicted and sentenced.

The vast majority of people in local jail are unsentenced. This week, there were 1678 people in local jail, and 1164 of them had not been sentenced, according to the Sheriff's department.

The distinction between jail and prison is very important for understanding inmate voting rights because many inmates in California jails have the right to vote, but those serving sentences in state prison do not.

When you get down to the brass tacks of the law, things get complicated. People on parole are not eligible to vote, but people sentenced to felony probation are.

Parole and probation are sometimes confused, but there are significant differences.

Parole is related to state prison time. An inmate goes on parole after serving prison time.

Convicts can be sentenced to serve jail time then go on county probation, or they can simply be given probation.

Probation and parole are similar in that they include a set of conditions a person is subject to, and people on parole and probation are supervised by correctional officers who aim to make sure they don't commit new crimes. Committing a crime, in addition to being illegal, obviously, will also constitute a parole or probation violation. Probation and parole can also include search terms, which allow police to search a person without a warrant.

Because of the difference between jail and prison, it's not technically correct to call someone in jail a "prisoner."

For newspaper purposes, a person in jail is an inmate, and a person in prison is a prisoner. However, a person in prison is also an inmate.

The Backstory
crimeblog.jpg
Adam Foxman has covered breaking news and public safety for The Star since January 2007.

He worked for The Tico Times in San José, Costa Rica during the summer of 2006, and reported for The Daily Bruin while at UCLA. He holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature with a minor in Spanish.

When he's not on the beat, he enjoys rock climbing.