December 17, 2019 | Philadelphia Magazine

Philly Police End Practice of Releasing Mental Health Status of Missing Residents

The Philadelphia Police Department says it has stopped releasing the mental health status of Philadelphia residents reported missing, something the department had been doing routinely for years.

The reversal comes less than two weeks after a Philly Mag investigation into the practice. We found hundreds of cases in which police included specific mental illness diagnoses such as depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia in press releases, bulletins and blog postings about missing residents.

In the vast majority of these missing persons cases, the people were located quickly, but their diagnoses remained very much public. The private medical information was frequently reported by local TV news stations and in other media accounts and shared many times on social media. And the first or second result for a Google search on the name of a person who had been reported missing was commonly the blog post on the Philadelphia Police Department’s website mentioning their diagnosis.

This all resulted in an “assault on privacy,” as University of Pennsylvania medical ethics expert Dominic Sisti, PhD, put it in our original story.

Both Sisti and Sam Knapp from the Pennsylvania Psychological Association explained that the disclosure of this information wasn’t just invasive and detrimental to the person in question — it also wasn’t particularly useful. After all, how does including the word “bipolar” or “schizophrenic” in a report help locate an individual?

Sisti told us he’s glad that the Philadelphia Police Department changed its policy, and so quickly.

“I think it shows the power of good journalism to find these blind spots in our institutions and call them out and work with folks to do better,” says Sisti. “The impact of this change is profound.”

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