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Who decides how to describe suspects?

A reader e-mailed me today asking why he rarely sees descriptions of suspects in our crime stories.

He was referring to this story, in which several gunmen carjacked, abducted and robbed a Plantation couple. Several web readers also posted comments raising the issue of why we didn't write more information about the assailants, who are still on the loose.

Here's the answer: When the police release detailed suspect descriptions, we print them. When the descriptions are vague and incomplete, we choose not to run that info.

Here's the reasoning, from The Miami Herald's Stylebook: "When describing a person sought by law enforcement officials ... there should be other identifying information [besides race or ethnicity]. Indeed, we should be pressing for the fullest possible identification from police. If the police information is limited, we ought to provide our readers with what we know in that context.

"Do not, for instance, simply report: Police were searching for a Hispanic man about six feet tall in connection with the robbery.

"And include as much other descriptive detail as possible: Police were searching for a man described by witnesses as Hispanic, in his teens, six feet tall, wearing an Oakland A's baseball cap and a dark jacket.

"The overall rule: If the race or ethnicity stands alone as the identifying element, avoid using it."

In the case about the armed carjacking, police only described the suspects in terms of race and an age range. It wouldn't serve much purpose to tell readers police are looking for a black man in his 20s. After all, that description fits tens of thousands of people in South Florida.

Compare that to this story from today about a man who rammed his car into a Kmart and stole jewelry. Police gave us a detailed description of who they're looking for, and we printed all of it, including the suspect's race.


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