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Opening day of 98th General Assembly

The opening day of the Missouri House of Representatives 98th General Assembly at the Missouri State Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Photo by Cristina Fletes-Boutte, cfletes-boutte@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY • A bill that would keep some information on police reports closed to the public won passage Wednesday in the House Government Oversight and Accountability Committee.

Under the measure, police would release records of suicide attempts only to the person who attempted it, or to their guardians if the individual is a minor or incapacitated. If a suicide occurs, records would be released only to the person’s family.

Police could still release information without consent of the person involved if public safety is at risk, said Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, chairman of the committee.

For sex crimes, including rape and sexual assault, medical information would be redacted from police records. If the victim was incapacitated or a minor, the medical information could be given to their families.

The bill sponsor, Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-Marlborough, has criticized the Post-Dispatch for its coverage of her attempted suicide last summer. She has said that others shouldn’t be subjected to the same news coverage, which she said could impede recoveries.

“I can’t change the past,” Montecillo said at a hearing Monday. “The purpose of this legislation is not to do that, or to hinder law enforcement’s ability to do their job, or somehow avenge the incidents of my story, but rather to protect others that surely will come after me.”

But the Missouri Press Association opposes the measure, saying that police records are already closed under the Missouri Sunshine Law if a record “is reasonably likely to pose a clear and present danger to the safety of any victim, witness, undercover officer, or other person.”

Doug Crews, the legislative director for the association, said that tightening release of records could deter important coverage of suicides, and pose a barrier for journalists and the public who seek to hold police accountable.

“If certain records aren’t released, how is the public to know that the police responded properly to situations?” Crews said. Suicides “might get swept under the carpet” under the measure, he said.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states that journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.” In addition, “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness,” the code says.

The code also draws contrast between reporting on private people versus public people.

“Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention,” the code says. “Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.”

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The Post-Dispatch and other media organizations typically don’t report on attempted suicides or suicides. Exceptions sometimes are made, however, when the incidents involve a public figure or occur in a public place.

“We try to be as sensitive as possible in these situations, but we do take seriously our responsibility to cover our elected officials,’’ said Adam Goodman, deputy managing editor at the Post-Dispatch. “The public should not be kept in the dark when it comes to events such as last year’s tragic suicide of Missouri Auditor and gubernatorial candidate Tom Schweich.”

Crews worries that if the proposed bill had been in effect last year, some details of Schweich’s suicide may not have come to light.

“That’s such a horrible instance that happened with Auditor Schweich, but it certainly looks like a bill like this could close information that otherwise was open on a statewide elected official,” he said. “I think people, the public — the citizens of Missouri — ought to be somewhat in the know about what’s going on there.”

The bill is House Bill 2473.

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