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Matt Von Pinnon, Published July 04 2010

Von Pinnon: When information, security collide, who draws the line?

I answered an unusual call from a local business owner last week.

The business had been burglarized a few days earlier.

Fargo police on this day had sent all local media more than two minutes of surveillance video of the burglar committing the crime in hopes of identifying him and catching him with help from the public.

As with all video like this from police, we put it on inforum.com. And as with all video like this, it was among the day’s most popular website features.

People either just like to see this kind of stuff, or they want to help. Either way, most would argue it’s better to have more people rather than fewer looking for a criminal.

It’s not uncommon for the police to solve area crimes using surveillance video and the public’s eyes, and we’re happy to play a role in that success.

So I was surprised when the business owner asked us to take the video off our website, arguing that it would help other criminals compromise the store’s security and the safety of its employees.

The business owner asked:

Would you like it if the police released a video of somebody burglarizing the inside of your house, alerting the world to your most intimate spaces?

I had to think about that for a moment. I might if it helped catch the person responsible, but I got the point, too.

I asked if these concerns had been discussed with the police.

No, they hadn’t.

I wondered: If the business owner had expressed these same concerns with the police, would the police have released the video?

Probably not, said Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes. He said the police want the victim to be comfortable with the strategy, but he also said the police would stress how many crimes have been solved by sharing surveillance video with the public.

Ternes said there is one exception: If video could help solve a crime that puts the public at great risk, the police would share it no matter if a business wanted it shared or not.

Last week’s situation also brings up some interesting questions for the media:

Should we follow a police request to disseminate a video when a business requests that we not?

A business may be more interested in preventing potential future crime than one that just occurred, but where does the public’s interest sit?

And here’s a mind-bender, one I’m not suggesting in this case but one that could be a factor in similar situations: What if the businessperson who wants the video shelved has an interest in the crime remaining unsolved?

In last week’s case, we compromised.

After detailed talks with the business owner about what specific parts of the video might harm the business’s future security, we agreed to edit out the first minute that shows how the burglar broke in, leaving intact the last minute or so that best features the burglar’s identity.

Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.