County Executive Rob Astorino and a local police group joined a growing chorus of politicians and cops critical of a local newspaper's online database of pistol permit holders, asking the Journal News Tuesday to remove the controversial map from its website.
Citing "public safety concerns and basic common sense," Astorino called on the White Plains-based newspaper to "immediately shut down the interactive map of pistol permit holders that is currently up on your website, LoHud.com."
Astorino's request came as more than 50 police officers blasted the newspaper during a rally in downtown White Plains, saying the map -- which includes the names and addresses of police and correction officers -- provides convicts with a direct route for retaliation against the officers who arrested them.
The Journal News has been the target of sharp criticism from gun rights advocates and some media ethicists since running the story and interactive map of Westchester and Rockland County pistol permit owners on Dec. 23. The publication added fuel to an already-emotional national debate in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., mass shooting.
Putnam County officials refused to release the data to the newspaper, and state Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson), a vehement critic of the Journal News map, introduced legislation to exempt handgun permit owners from being identified publicly.
In his letter to the newspaper's publisher Janet Hasson, Astorino wrote, "The right of the Journal News to publish is protected by the First Amendment. The Journal News also had the right to request the information from the Westchester County Clerk's office under the Freedom of Information Act. Whether the county clerk should have complied with the initial request is debatable. But simply because the right to do something exists does not necessarily make it right to do."
One gun owner who was spared inclusion on the interactive map is Kevin Sheil, a 70-year-old retired NYPD officer who lives in Putnam County. Sheil joined dozens of other police officers and police organizations for a rally at the White Plains County Courthouse on Tuesday, where speakers called for Journal News editors to pull the interactive map or remove the names and addresses of current and former police officers.
"Putnam's making a good stand" by refusing to grant gun permit information to the paper, Sheil said. Although he isn't on the map, he said he joined Tuesday's rally out of solidarity with other police officers, because "now they're targets."
The decision to publish, Astorino said, was "misguided" and "demonized individuals who did nothing wrong, violated their privacy and potentially put them and their families ... in harm's way.
"Whatever your purpose in publishing the map, surely three weeks time was enough to make your point," Astorino wrote. "Constitutional rights -- even those protected by the First Amendment -- are not absolute. In this case the line has been crossed. The issue is no longer protecting speech but rather protecting the public, including employees of the Journal News."
"Taking down the map would be in the public's interest, which your newspaper is in the business to serve," Astorino concluded.
Hasson did not return a telephone call Tuesday seeking comment.
Including police and correction officers in the interactive map provides "murderers, rapists, pedophiles, organized crime figures and gang members" with the means to "retaliate against those officers or their families," said Robert Buckley, vice president of the Affiliated Police Association of Westchester County. The APA is an umbrella group of local Police Benevolent Associations.
Buckley said his group sent a formal notice to Hasson and the paper, warning that police "will hold (them) accountable" if any convict shows up at the house of a police officer identified on the map.
Since the newspaper published the map, bloggers have published the names, addresses and phone numbers of Journal News reporters and editors, and staffers at the paper have received five packages containing suspicious white powder. Those incidents, along with unspecified death threats, prompted Journal News management to hire armed guards to watch over the paper's office.
Since then, a package containing "nontoxic fecal matter" was sent to the Journal News' top editor, CynDee Royle.
In an article on the Journal News website, Hasson, defended the decision to publish the information. "New York residents have the right to own guns with a permit and they also have a right to access public information," she said.
In a Jan. 8 radio appearance on station WNYC, Astorino told host Brian Lehrer that the threats also have endangered employees of other companies who share a White Plains office building with the paper.
"There is a law enforcement aspect to this because there are now armed security at that building, not only to protect the Journal News, but also the other tenants in that building," Astorino said.
The Journal News has also received support for the map from groups like the state League of Women Voters and government accountability organizations like Common Cause New York and the New York Public Interest Research Group.