May 7th, 2010
Day 10: Police agencies the biggest problem
By David Cuillier
So far: Six states, 2,549 miles, 16 sessions, 306 people
Missoula, Mont. — The one theme that is emerging in this tour is the difficulty in getting records from police. It is apparent to me that this might be the No. 1 problem for news organizations today in FOI.
Time after time journalists are raising this issue: They can’t get anything out of police anymore. As I do sessions I ask the old timers to describe what it was like to cover cops 20 years ago. Then I ask a new reporter to describe what it is like today. Here is how it goes:
20 years ago: Walk into the police station and go to the incident reports, kept in a basket or clipboard. Flip through all the reports for the past 24 hours, with no redactions. Everything is there – name of suspects, full address, name of victims – the works. If you had a question you asked the sarge on duty, or even called the officer who handled the call. If we heard something on the scanner we could ask about it. We got news out fast and we got it complete.
Today: You walk into a police station and talk to a PIO, who tells you what the police think is newsworthy, sanitized and little detail. No looking at incident reports. No interviewing the officer or getting information from a sarge in charge. Some agencies are encrypting their scanner channels so nobody can hear what is happening. We are at the mercy of what a PIO wants to tell us, or not tell us. Secret police.
Some police are still fairly open and provide information the previous way, but they are rare. What happened? This has crept into practice slowly. Each time the police implement a new policy restricting information, we went along. Over time we got to this. This is intolerable. We cannot accept a secret police force in this country. There is just too much at stake. It is time to push back. Demand the previous practices of openness. I’m going to be thinking about what we can do about this. If you have thoughts, post your comments here or e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Today I spoke with about 35 journalists at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. It was a great crowd! A mix of college students and wizened pros provided excellent discussion and questions about getting documents and overcoming denials. Thanks to Scott Maben, former Region 10 SPJ director, for coordinating the event.
Also, it was nice to see Betsy Z. Russell there. She’s covered Idaho for the Spokesman for years, out of her Boise office. Not only that, she helped start Idahoans for Open Government, a great organization committed to fostering transparency in the Gem State. Thanks, Betsy!
After the lunch session I drove to Missoula, Mont., to provide a session for the Montana pro chapter, organized by former SPJ FOI Committee Chair Ian Marquand, at the University of Montana School of Journalism. It was great to catch up with Ian and School Dean Peggy Kuhr (a former Spokesman editor). Also, it was a privilege to meet Clem Work, a former journalist from U.S. News & World Report and from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, who now teaches media law.
But to get to Missoula, I had to drive over two more snowy passes (Fourth of July pass and Lookout pass at the Montana border). I love the Northwest, my homeland, but can it cut me a break and stop snowing on me? I didn’t think I would need chains on this trip!
Friday: Stopping at the Bozeman, Mont., paper and then onto Cody, Wyo., for a Saturday morning session.