Limited information helped place arrest in proper context

CNJ Editorial

The newspaper came under fire last week from several readers disgusted by too much detail in our coverage of a Curry County commissioner’s felony-charge arrest by Clovis police. The readers believe we printed too much information and violated the privacy of a child of Commissioner Ed Perales. One felt the matter was private and shouldn’t have been covered at all.

We disagree with the last comment. Police arrests of public officials must be covered. We printed what details we did, not to embarrass anyone but to offer readers context to understand how unsettling the situation was, without going into more explicit details in the police report.

Our reasoning, understandably, didn’t satisfy those upset. However, this case was unusual. Without some more specific detail, we believe people might not have understood the situation as well, or why the case was later dismissed. When a prominent person is arrested, then let off, many people automatically think that person got a favor from the legal system the average citizen didn’t.

We don’t believe Ed Perales was favored. Based on the facts from police and from Perales family responses later, we think the special prosecutor made the correct and fair decision. We have asked ourselves if we could have chosen better words to explain what happened, though, while fulfilling our obligation to report a story as accurately and fairly as possible. This case illustrates it is not always an easy task.

Commissioner Perales was accused of holding his wife and daughter against their wills following a family dispute last Sunday. He was arrested and immediately released on $5,000 bond. On Monday, a Clovis News Journal reporter spent more than an hour with the Perales family in an effort to balance police accounts of the incident.

Before the first story in Tuesday’s paper, editors determined readers needed some idea of what caused an elected official to act in a way that led to his arrest. If he was arrested for an insignificant incident, readers might wonder if he was stable enough to decide how to spend millions of tax dollars. We thought taxpayers needed to understand this was not a mundane incident, without including more explicit details in the police report.

The limited information we provided came directly from that public record. We believe the few extra words helped some readers understand the emotions Ed Perales may have been feeling. Just as we did not use them to embarrass any family member, we did not print them as a way to condone his or anyone else’s actions that day, but to provide context to the dynamics in play.

We used the readers’ complaints to weigh how we would handle other story developments. With that detail printed, we asked ourselves whether there was a need to print it every time. We felt not.

On Wednesday, the case was transferred to the district attorney’s office in Tucumcari to avoid conflicts of interest since Perales is a high-profile citizen. On Thursday, that prosecutor dismissed the case after talking privately with Perales’ wife and daughter. Follow-up stories covered those decisions without repeating details that caused the upset. The dismissal meant we didn’t have to decide how much detail to publish if the case had gone to trial.

Those decisions are more complex when minors appear in court. How would we have handled it? We don’t know. Each case requires separate decisions based on the circumstances at the time.