There was an AP news story over at Yahoo News this weekend that brings up the question posed in this post; Should a murder victim's past matter? The news story covers a recent change in policy by New Orleans Police who are now releasing all the details of a murder victim's past with regards to their criminal history.
New Orleans police say revealing a victim's rap sheet lets the public know that much of the violence is happening between people with similar criminal backgrounds. Families of the slain victim's say the practice is insensitive, and others outraged with the policy say it has racial overtones and sends a message that the victims got what was coming to them.
"I don't understand why they want to do it," said Kathryn White, whose 25-year-old son was gunned down in what she said was a case of mistaken identity. White said her son was arrested just once for a small amount of marijuana.
"You are already in so much pain and then you have to see people saying bad things about your dead child. What good does that do anyone," she said.
This is really a conundrum for police. Regardless of a victim's past, nothing they might have done makes it acceptable for them to die. However, certain lifestyle choices may make it more likely that one is going to become a victim of violent crime. For example, if you are not a prostitute, you are probably less likely to become the victim of a serial killer. Likewise, if you are not a drug dealer, you are probably less likely to be the victim of a drug ripoff robbery with all the violence associated with that.
Police are often stuck trying to reassure a nervous public of their safety after a lurid news story about violent crime hits the press. The news story is probably not going to tell the whole story about these crimes. When was the last time you saw a news story about a murder where the victim's mother tearfully told a reporter that her son was a drug dealer who ripped off his supplier before he was killed?
It is not possible for police to protect you from crime if you are willingly going to engage in questionable behavior. That doesn't make your death any more acceptable. However, it does explain why these awful crimes happen sometimes.
That being said, I think police agencies need to think long and hard about releasing information about a victim's past. Just because a murder victim got busted for weed years ago doesn't mean that he was doing anything wrong when he got killed. Releasing irrelevant information about a victim's past is only likely to hurt the victim's family and set the community where they lived against you.