OPP creating more victims

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When The Highlander was sent surveillance video of a person saying ‘f*** off, you faggot” to a cottager on Maple Lake, we didn’t think we should take it lightly.

We were told OPP had charged the person, and his wife, with criminal harassment.

We were cognizant it was the result of a long neighbourhood dispute, so ensured the cottager was not made out to be an angel. We reported on how his actions, including development on a shore road allowance he does not own, had upset many people.

Unfortunately, although OPP confirmed a text saying they’d charged a “Ray” and “Katrina,” they would not provide any more information. They would not release the full names, ages, or address, to protect the victim. Yet, it was the victim who came to The Highlander and his name and photo were in the paper. Protecting the identity of the victim was not an issue anymore.

After the story came out, another set of neighbours said we had defamed them because we had not printed the name of the accused. We went back to the OPP to ask them to reconsider, as surely, they did not want to create any more victims due to possible misidentification. Again, they declined, saying they stood behind their mandate of protecting victims of crime. They said they could not control whether victims independently made a decision to identify themselves to the media. We were told we could file a complaint through the Office of the Independent Police Review Director.

Consequently, it was left to The Highlander to get the names.

We contacted OPP media to see if they could tell us what their policy is on releasing names. We’re still waiting for a reply.

However, a quick online search revealed they have stopped giving out names in certain circumstances, such as accident victims. On the surface that seems a reasonable course of action. However, it can lead to misidentification and widespread rumours in communities. Once next of kin are notified, it is still prudent to release names.

Another policy switch appears to be not releasing the gender of people charged with crimes. They’re saying “the individual” or “the accused” instead of gender specific pronouns such as “he” or “she”.

One wonders what’s going on. An Ottawa Human Rights lawyer, who specializes in human rights and policing law, told CBC recently, the OPP seem overly cautious, possibly a result of pre-emptively trying to avoid legal liability. He suggested training officers to understand the human rights code and how to deal with people, as opposed to being overly administrative.

The City of Kawartha Lakes recently had a discussion about not releasing names of anyone carged so as not to stigmatize them.

Chief Mark Mitchell said it’s about balancing priorities. He said police agencies should be open and transparent with the public, which would favour releasing as much information as possible. However, that has to be balanced with the risk of unnecessarily stigmatizing and shaming individuals. He said for him the question is ‘is this a matter of public interest or is the public just interested?”

For example, he said police should say when someone is arrested and charged for impaired driving, but does the public need to know the name? Some would argue they do. It acts as a deterrent to other would-be drunk drivers.

It’s not only the OPP and other police services that struggle with naming. At The Highlander, we have opted more towards not naming. We do this because we cannot possibly follow every court proceeding to see if a person has been convicted – or exonerated – of an offence.

But we believe there are times when local OPP should release names, such as in the Maple Lake case. Another example is, if there is a fatal car accident, and wrong names of victims are circulating on Facebook or in the community, they need to notify next of kin first, and then release the names. Failure to do so simply creates more victims, public confusion and anxiety and is irresponsible.