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Matt Von Pinnon, Published December 05 2010

Von Pinnon: Sometimes public safety trumps shielding victims

Which is more important: protecting a crime victim from potential public exposure, or protecting the larger public from potential harm?

That’s the dilemma we faced twice on Friday for two very different stories.

The first story involved the reported stranger rape of a teen Thursday night in her West Fargo home.

Police said the girl told them a man entered her unlocked home, sexually assaulted her in her basement bedroom and left out the front door, all while her siblings slept and parents were away.

West Fargo police said on Friday morning that the suspect was a 6-foot white man with facial hair. They said the attack happened in the 500 block of Ninth Avenue West.

We debated whether to publish the block information, knowing that doing so could help people more easily identify the victim of a sex crime, something we try to prevent.

But this was not a typical sex crime. The victim didn’t know her attacker, and he could potentially still harm others. Letting people know the general whereabouts and time of the crime may help others in the vicinity prevent a repeat, and potential witnesses of unusual activity in the area that night may help police catch the perpetrator.

We ultimately chose to publish the general whereabouts of the rape. We felt the public’s safety was more important to protect at this point than the possibility of the victim becoming known to others.

The other victim identification dilemma involved a Fargo woman whose identity is now associated with a website that reportedly scammed customers out of thousands of dollars.

On Thursday, the Better Business Bureau alerted the public (via the press) to a scam furniture sales website registered to a real Fargo woman and her real Fargo address. We named the woman and her address, thinking that information might help the public avoid being taken by a potentially unscrupulous business.

The woman we named called us Friday, insisting she was as much a victim of the scam as those who paid for the furniture online but never received product. She said her identity was stolen by this online scammer and she was now being further victimized by having her good name associated with bad acts. She asked the police to help determine who had stolen her identity.

We did a follow-up story, based on what she told us and police Friday. We felt it was important for the public to know all that we know in this matter, even if she herself was a victim.

These situations are not easy. We often must choose between what we see as the lesser of two evils. Nobody wants to identify people who, by no choice of their own, find themselves in these public situations. And yet identifying crime victims directly or indirectly is occasionally necessary to protect the greater public good.

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