The Public Editor: ID Crime Suspects by Race? The Answer Isn’t Easy

Armando Acuña, Sacramento Bee, March 5, 2006

Some topics seem to have a life of their own. Readers bring them up year after year, like a slow but persistent—some would say torturous—drip from a kitchen faucet.

Such is the case with how and when The Bee identifies suspects in its crime stories by race.

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Let’s be clear: The paper doesn’t have a blanket policy banning the use of race in crime stories. But it sets the bar high.

Racial identifications are allowed when they are included as part of a detailed physical description of a suspect. They also are allowed when describing suspects in serial crimes, even when overall details are sparse, and in police sketches of suspects.

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As a practical matter, most reader complaints are generated by short crimes stories that appear in the regional digest in the Metro section. A recent digest story about two men who accosted a group of female joggers at Sacramento State University illustrates how different editors view the same information.

One suspect was described as “5-foot-10, 185 pounds, with athletic build and short brown hair. He was wearing blue jeans and a hooded gray American eagle sweat shirt with pink, green and blue stripes near the sleeve shoulders.” The other suspect was described as “stocky, 5-foot-9, 185 pounds with spiky brown hair. He was wearing blue jeans and a hooded black or dark-colored sweat shirt with lettering.”

For Scott Lebar, the assistant managing editor in charge of Metro, the descriptions fell just short of the standard to include race. “They don’t have that one extra, key identifier,” Lebar said. “This is not an exact science and there will always be close and individual calls.”

Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez looked at the same descriptions and said he probably would have made the decision to include race in the story.

Rodriguez recounts previous stories in The Bee where suspects initially identified as African American turned out to be Latino, or suspects described as Latino turned out to be white or Asian.

And that’s part of the downside in providing racial descriptions that turn out to be wrong or misleading. They provide false crime-solving leads and contribute to racial profiling. Fitting people into accurate, one-dimensional racial categories is also difficult in a multiracial and multicultural state like California.

There is also, unfortunately, an element of racism among some readers who seem more interested in keeping a racial scorecard than in finding a suspect.

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