Published Online: April 16, 1997

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N.Y.C. Policy on Collecting Yearbooks Assailed

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Stung by criticism from educators and state lawmakers, New York City police officials last week denied the accuracy of a written departmental policy requiring detectives to keep school yearbooks on file.

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The policy, contained in an internal police newsletter, states that each detective squad "must have the most current yearbook for each secondary school in their respective commands."

Lenny Alcivar, a police department spokesman, said the memo was "incomplete and inaccurate."

But news reports about the memo outraged local school officials and lawmakers, who argued that collecting yearbooks on a regular basis would violate students' privacy and could lead to unfair convictions.

"It's just not the intent of yearbooks," said Karen Crowe, a spokeswoman for the city school board. A yearbook "is supposed to be a creative product," she said. "To turn it into a file for law-enforcement purposes just doesn't seem right."

State Assemblyman Steven Sanders said the policy "bears racial overtones," and he promised to introduce legislation that would prohibit the systematic collection of yearbooks to be used as mug books.

"Sooner or later, this policy will result in some innocent kid being put in a lineup because his skin or hair is a certain color, because he has freckles or wears a baseball cap," Mr. Sanders said.

'Not Our Policy'

Mr. Alcivar, however, said that the department does not use the books as mug shot files, and that it has no policy requiring detectives to collect yearbooks on a regular basis.

"That's absolutely not what we do," he said in an interview. "That's not our policy. That never will be our policy."

He said police use yearbooks only on a "case by case" basis when a "detective has reason to believe a perpetrator or victim goes to a particular school."

Using yearbooks for specific investigations, Mr. Alcivar added, has been an effective police practice for decades. "Yearbooks have proven successful in solving crimes," he said.

Donald Baldwin, the executive director of the Washington-based National Law Enforcement Council, said he does not know of any police departments that regularly collect yearbooks. But he agreed with Mr. Alcivar that yearbooks can be a helpful tool in police investigations.

"If you're assigned a case, you go to all the sources you can to solve the crime," he said.

Ellen Painter, a spokeswoman for the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, said some police departments compile background files on students, especially those connected to gang activities.

Ms. Crowe, the district spokeswoman, said school board members and administrators are willing to cooperate with the police department on a case-by-case basis, but would not agree to a systematic collection of yearbooks.

She said that schools have given yearbooks to police in the past, but only for specific investigations.

Often, she added, administrators are willing only to provide photocopied pages of the parts of the yearbook relevant to the crime. And some schools release yearbooks only if the police department presents a subpoena, she said.

"We really try to limit the information they get because we consider yearbooks part of school records and that they're protected," she said.

City Schools Chancellor Rudy F. Crew met with Police Commissioner Howard Safir last week to discuss the department's policy on yearbooks.

The two plan to meet again, Mr. Alcivar said, "to reach a common ground to protect children and parents from crime in schools."

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