THE POLICE BEAT
|| Crime is a staple of local television news, but it's
often covered without much background or context. To help newsrooms
do a better job of reporting on crime, we've pulled together a tip
sheet based on suggestions from several contributors, including Kim
Rossmo of the Police
Foundation, Kathryn Sosbe of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel
and Nancy Weil of IDG
News Service in Boston. If you have tips to add, please let
Learn the beat
- Become familiar with police terminology and policies. Contact
a retired training officer for a briefing. Arrange for a "ride-along"
to learn more about procedures in your area. Ask a homicide detective
to walk you through an old, unsolved case. Consider getting hands-on
instruction from a firearms instructor, a polygraph technician,
a forensic scientist. Ask lots of questions at crime scenes to
better understand how police reach their conclusions.
- Get to know the coroners, the pathologists, and the prosecutors.
They're going to turn up at crime scenes and can be great sources.
Get to know the chiefs of police and their top assistants. Schmooze
the office help at police stations and fire departments. They
hear things and see things and tend to know what's going on.
- Compile a list of Neighborhood Watch captains, association activists
and victims' groups. Many will have email lists you can subscribe
to that can help you spot crime trends. Check in with the rest
- Your performance on the street will be evaluated and tested
by every officer you meet, Sosbe says. They will tell you something
in secret just to see if you can keep your mouth shut. Once you've
passed their trust test, maintain that trust, but don't ever cross
the line and become their pal. Get them to respect you for the
work you do: be fair in your stories, accurate in your facts and
professional in your conduct.
- Some departments or officers may have had a bad experience with
the news media in the past and refuse to provide even basic information.
If that happens, ask why making the information public could be
a problem for the investigation. Appeal to their professional
interest by making the case that information can help the community
- Think long term. Build relationships with beat cops, detectives,
and ranking officers so you aren't so dependent on PIOs for information.
Dig for context
- Check for data that can put
crimes in context. Begin at the Bureau of Crime Statistics
Web site, at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/
But don't limit yourself to the annual federal report on crime
statistics. Ask what your police department has to report to the
district attorney, the county, state and federal governments.
Check with each division to see what statistics they collect and
what they're willing to share.
- Build your background knowledge. Property crime is far more
common than violent crime (9 out of 10 crimes are against property),
but that's not what you'd think from watching TV news. The average
take in a bank robbery is $200. The average bicycle theft nets
at least twice as much.
- Know the budgets of the departments you cover. How many cops
are patrolling the beat? How much money is spent on Internal Affairs
investigations, on overtime, on equipment? What are the K-9 dogs
used for? Motor pool information can be a gold mine.
- Think like a detective in planning your coverage. For example,
divide a murder story into categories: VICTIM, SUSPECT, CRIME
SCENE, WITNESS. Make check lists of what you need to do to thoroughly
cover each part of the story.
Scan the scene
- Once you've shot the flashing lights and the police tape, take
time to really look at the scene. Do a complete 360-degree turn
and see who and what catch your eye. You may find something or
someone to shed light on what really happened and why.
- Step back to look for connections between crime scenes. Rossmo
gives the example of a series of home invasions, all of which
targeted elderly residents. Every crime scene featured a home
in need of maintenance, with a wheelchair ramp.
- In covering a continuing investigation, go back to the scene
at the time of the crime, on the same day of the week, in the
same kind of weather. Detectives often do. Or take an expert with
you to point out factors that may increase the likelihood of crime
in a particular area.