Should the Times have printed shooting witnesses' names?

As you've no doubt read by now, the Pinellas-Pasco State State Attorney's Office has cleared St. Petersburg police officer Terrence Nemeth in the shooting of 17-year-old Gibbs High School student Javon Dawson after the young man allegedly pointed a gun at Officer Nemeth when police arrived to break up an out-of-control graduation party.

Officer Nemeth is still on leave. Dawson's family is calling the decision a travesty of justice. The Uhurus are making veiled threats of "consequences." Just yesterday, after protesters descended on his office, Gov. Charlie Crist asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to do its own review of the case. But, if everything reported so far is correct, there's probably enough evidence here, including DNA and gun residue, to show Dawson did fire a gun at the party.

But there's an interesting aspect of the case that could have larger consequences for St. Pete in the future.

Take a look at the St. Petersburg Times' special report on the shooting, and you'll find a copy of Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe's memo to St. Pete Police Chief Chuck Harmon that outlines the results of the investigation. In that memo are the names of witnesses that came forward and talked to the state attorney's office about the shooting.

If you recall the climate surrounding the shooting in June, police and investigators had an extremely difficult time finding witnesses for the case, despite the fact that some 250 kids were present at the graduation party where Dawson was shot. This spurred all types of commentary on the no-snitching code that's prevalent in many black communities here in Tampa Bay and across the nation.

The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office finally convinced some witnesses to talk, and now, their names are splashed on the Times website for all to see. That includes any Internet-savvy gang members that investigators say Dawson was affiliated with.

I'm not sure how I feel about that.

As a rule, I always err on the side of "the more information, the better." Sometimes revealing names and confidential information on a subject might be uncomfortable, but that's our job as journalists.

But if I look at this from another point of view, as someone who regularly goes into communities that are hostile to fact-finding folks like police investigators and journalists, I worry this could have a negative effect on future investigations. If witnesses know their names will end up in print (or on the Web), will they still come forward when the next shooting happens? I'm not faulting the Times — I can't say for sure if I would or wouldn't do the same thing — but I am surprised the state attorney's office didn't redact any names from the report. Just two weeks ago, I was stonewalled by the SPPD for just trying to get a police report of a 2-year-old art theft. Now, a state agency has released the names of witnesses and perhaps put them in danger.

Again, I'm not passing judgement, only curious on the conversations that did (or did not) go on about the ethics of publishing these kids names.

What do you think?

(Photo Credit: Beard Papa)

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