Names selectively omitted from The Kansas City Star story on child crimes unit

The Kansas City Star has documented some of the failures of the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department’s crimes-against-children unit. The Star obtained memos in which police officials use words like “gross negligence” and “incompetence” to describe the unit’s performance.

Written by Glenn E. Rice, Donna McGuire and Ian Cummings, the story raises serious questions about police department leadership. An unidentified sergeant spoke up about the “less than satisfactory performance by several detectives” in the unit in 2011, according to the Star report. Yet it was not until last September that the department created a “special response team” to review how cases were being handled (answer: poorly).

The Star story is an example of good public-service journalism. Even at 3,700 words, however, it feels incomplete. The story does not identify the supervisor of the crimes-against-children unit or any of the personnel who were suspended by Chief Darryl Forté earlier this year, when the department announced an internal investigation into “case management issues” in the crimes-against-children section.

The only police officials identified in the Star story are top brass (Forté, Deputy Chief Cheryl Rose) and majors and sergeants who responded to the crisis. In one peculiar passage, the Star story describes a memo written by a sergeant brought into the child-crimes unit as an extra supervisor. The sergeant, who identified “significant issues” that needed to be addressed, is named; the commander of the special-victims unit, the recipient of the memo, is not.

Reporters and editors leave people’s names out of stories for many reasons. News organizations typically do not identify victims of sexual assault, for instance. Other circumstances are less cut and dried. Sometimes a “civilian” does or says something colorful that we want to include in our stories without making trouble for someone at work or home. Names are also omitted to avoid the hassle of seeking out an individual for comment or to minimize the risk of a lawsuit. 

One potential explanation for the Star not identifying the child-crimes-unit investigators is that it was a condition made by a source. But it seems more likely that a decision was made to play it safe and identify only those police personnel who were least likely to complain about how they were depicted. 

Sure, this is armchair quarterbacking. But faced with a somewhat similar decision in a story about a potential wrongful conviction in a double-murder case, The Pitch identified a police detective accused of misconduct. The Star also identified the detective in a report about the case published a few days after ours.

Last week, The Pitch posted a brief story about a lawsuit filed against 7th Heaven by parents of a cashier who was shot dead in the store by the father of her child, who then turned the gun on himself. The killer was the son of a store manager, and the lawsuit alleges that the manager was aware of the threat he posed. The lawsuit claims that 7th Heaven was negligent in not having adequate safety protocols in place.

We omitted the name of the store manager from our story. She’s not a defendant in the lawsuit, and the level of public accountability for the manager of a head shop seems low. This is one of those less cut-and-dried cases; we might have made a different decision on another day. The Star, in a report about the lawsuit posted Monday, identified the store manager.

I had hoped to discuss the decision to withhold names from the story on the child-crimes unit with a reporter or editor at the Star. On Friday, I emailed the team that produced the story. I left a voice message with Rice, the story’s first author, on Monday. I will update the post if anyone responds.

Categories: News