When I started out in the newspaper business in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, covering cops was one of my main beats. It’s what they did to young reporters — send you out every day to peel through the last night’s police reports and get a good look at the criminal, tragic and sometimes ridiculous things people do to one another after Miller Time kicks in.
Back in those days, the police didn’t have a lot of heartburn about nosy reporters going through a basket of reports and then asking questions. The reports came with a long narrative written by the officers about what transpired on each call. Often they were pretty hilarious, because if anything is better than reading about the insane reasons people call police, it’s those insane situations being described in “copspeak.”
“The complainant smelled of alcohol and was carrying what appeared to be a half-full whisky bottle. He was wearing only a Space Invaders T-shirt. Complainant advised his pants had been forcibly removed by his neighbor, Jimmy, who had become intoxicated during a game of cards. Jimmy’s whereabouts are unknown at the time of the call. Complainant suspects Jimmy of also removing an unopened pack of American cheese from the refrigerator. …”
Reading through the reports gave me a newfound respect for law enforcement officers. They wade through a lot of garbage every day, and people call them for absolutely the dumbest things imaginable.
One of the most important things going through those reports each day accomplished, though, was it allowed me to develop relationships with individual officers and departments as a whole. That’s important stuff when you’re a reporter trying to tell stories accurately.
Fast-forward nearly 30 years and it’s very different. Our reporters don’t make daily trips to the police departments because there’s really no reason to. Police reports aren’t public any longer — at least not the parts that matter most. About 14 years ago, the state switched to a form that has the narrative on the back of the report, and most departments will only release a photocopied and redacted version of the front of the report.
Now we rely upon the police departments to let us know what happened the night before and trust nothing important is left out. Mobile Police Department, for instance, sends out a daily recap that has just the most basic information. There’s not much context in any of it, and it’s fairly useless.
On the flip side of the equation, though, is the cottage industry of having staged “perp walks” for local television stations to get video of folks arrested and accused of committing crimes. There doesn’t seem to be much difficulty getting MPD to participate in this bit of crime theater. MPD is one of the few agencies in Alabama that still conducts perp walks — exposing an alleged perpetrator to a gauntlet of reporters asking leading questions in hopes of getting something that will look good on that evening’s broadcasts.
So on one hand, we can’t look at a police report, but on the other, they’ll drag someone who theoretically still has the presumption of innocence out through the parking lot for broadcast on the evening’s news. It’s kind of a head scratcher.
Back in the old days reporters had to exercise something we once called “editorial judgment” before a story might appear in print or on TV. And local TV news has now become so crime dependent that even the most mundane transgressions are winding up on the air in place of actual reporting. So I can get why departments are a little skittish.
But it also seems like there’s a lot more effort by departments to manage the news. Take, for instance, the incident nearly two years ago where an MPD officer pepper-sprayed a group of rowdy McGill students as they tried to paint the cannon at the Loop following their win against Murphy’s football team. This was a widely reported story and got a lot of attention. But MPD refused to release the body camera video from the officer at the center of the controversy.
Just last week, WALA won a lawsuit forcing the department to release the video. It’s ridiculous it’s taken two years and a lawsuit to make that happen.
The public has been sold on the concept of buying expensive body cams for officers because it will supposedly offer hard evidence of whether a cop is acting properly or not. But in almost every case where there is controversy, departments fight to keep the public from seeing the video. Unless, of course, it proves the cops were in the right. In those cases, there never seems to be as much red tape and the videos appear almost immediately.
The city has admitted the officer involved “failed to follow procedure when using pepper spray” and was disciplined. But MPD tried to hide behind claiming the video showed minors, as well as the standard “it’s under investigation.”
Years ago Lagniappe had to sue MPD for public documents related to expenditures for its Police Explorers program, and the Sam Jones administration tried to withhold the documents because they contained the names of kids being taken on skiing trips using federal grant money. Eventually they lost that case too.
There’s certainly a fine line to be walked between providing newsworthy body cam video and spending every day churning out mundane arrest clips for the local news to show that night. I have little doubt many media outlets across the nation would go crazy with body cam videos if they had unfettered access. But it shouldn’t be too hard for police to determine when the public has a legitimate standing in seeing a recording.
Now, because they fought so hard to keep it secret, the pepper-spray story will be front and center again two years later.
It would be nice to go back to a situation where reporters were down at MPD every day talking to the officers about reports and the department could put as much effort into providing public information as they do planning the next perp walk.