By Kent Warneke, Norfolk Daily News
J.W. Byrd is my hero for today’s column, and I’ve never even met him.
Byrd is the newly elected sheriff in Darlington County in South Carolina. One of the things he wanted to accomplish while new in office was to clear out a bunch of old arrest warrants.
They were mostly for people wanted for writing bad checks or a variety of misdemeanors — nothing too serious but still cases that had been in limbo for some time, he said.
So what to do?
The sheriff decided to ask the local newspaper — the News & Press — for its help. The newspaper and the sheriff’s office decided to test their respective reach.
Each week, the newspaper would list 50 names in a public notice that was one-quarter of a newspaper page in size.
At the same time, the sheriff’s office would list a different set of 50 names on its website.
What was the result?
Byrd said the response to the names printed in the newspaper was “overwhelming, and it’s really been better than we ever thought it would be.” He called it the most successful program his office has had.
The newspaper response outpaced the sheriff’s website by 7 to 1.
Of the 200 names listed in the newspaper over four weeks, 70 citizens cam forward to resolve their warrants — a rate of 35 percent. Many more people came forward who had not been named because they wanted to avoid having their names in the newspaper, the sheriff said.
Byrd said his office fielded 800 to 1,000 calls about outstanding arrest warrants within that four-week period when normally, the office gets only a few calls a year on the same topic.
From the sheriff’s website, only 10 people came forward — a response rate of 5 percent. That’s quite a difference.
So kudos to the sheriff for being willing to work with his local newspaper on this experiment. The response may have surprised him, but it probably didn’t surprise his local newspaper editor, and it didn’t surprise me.
The same kind of positive response has occurred in regard to the weekly Crime Watch that the Daily News publishes each Wednesday in conjunction with the Madison County court proceedings. Law enforcement can tell you that our publishing the names and photos of individuals who have outstanding arrest warrants has helped resolve many of the cases.
It’s not rocket science. A newspaper is a general interest publication, appealing to individuals of varying ages.
Readers turn to the pages of a newspaper for all kinds of reasons and while they’re doing so, many check out the Crime Watch feature.
But would those same individuals make a habit of logging on to a sheriff’s office website or some other government site? I don’t think so. It’s not convenient.
What I also found interesting was that the South Carolina sheriff said he received many calls from people wanting to clear up warrants — before their name appeared in the newspaper. That speaks volume to the impact a print publication still possesses. You can see something on a website, but until it’s in print, it takes on a whole new level of significance.