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The picture begins to blur

The Baltimore Sun

Here is a recent item from The Baltimore Sun's Police Blotter describing a shooting in Northwest Baltimore:

"A male, 19, from Randallstown, Baltimore County, was sitting on a weight bench on the back porch of a house in the 5400 block of Jonquil Ave. about 9:20 p.m. Monday and watching friends play cards when he heard gunshots. As he and his friends fled, the victim realized he had been shot in the left leg and lower back. He was taken by ambulance to an area hospital and admitted. His condition was not available and there was no arrest."

Not only did city police withhold the victim's name, they also refused to say to which hospital he was taken.

Get ready for more items lacking such seemingly basic information. City police say they are withholding the names of hospitals to which victims of violent crime are taken. A reporter learned this last weekend. A police spokesman told me that the policy began a year ago but has not always been routinely followed.

Authorities note the city's gang problem and witness intimidation issues.

"Some of the people who get shot are gang-affiliated," said Officer Nicole Monroe, a police spokeswoman. "We have gangs converging at the hospital. Family members are notified by authorities. Beyond that, there is no need to put in the newspaper where victims can be found."

The policy seems to make sense. After all, who wants to give out or publish a road map for a gunman who failed to kill his victim and wants to finish the job?

A small item in the newspaper about a shooting can probably get by without revealing the name of the hospital or the victim. The larger worry, though, is the gradual demise of information that over time means the residents of this city know less and less about crime, the very thing they worry about the most.

Who are the victims, and how and where were they treated? The less a reporter knows about them, the harder it is to describe what happened and why. Without that perspective, the initial, paltry police account becomes the sole narrative of what might be a complicated, interesting and important tale.

The irony is that the information can usually be obtained in other ways. The name of the victim is in the police report, as is the name of the hospital. If a suspect has been charged, then a simple trip to the court's computer database or to the courthouse gives everyone not only the victim's name but other personal details.

But that information often can't be obtained on deadline. By the time the police report is released or the court file opened, the desires to withhold the information or to publish it have waned.

Joann Rodgers, the spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins Hospital, said the institution's security chief supports withholding hospital names. "His team, along with city police, have always agreed to protect the identity and location of violent crime victims to ensure they get the best care and they are kept safe," she said.

Authorities argue that reporters and the public lose nothing by being kept in the dark about such information. I worry about gradually losing a complete picture of city crime, and that the first and easiest reaction to any problem is for the government to cut off information.

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