As I read Mariel Garza's column last week (11/12/2006) in the Daily News of Los Angeles it echoed some of my own experiences in trying to connect my journalism students with the Los Angeles Police Department. Like Garza, I teach a journalism course at California State University Northridge, and wanted the students in my class to view a daily crime log as one of their 10 out-of-class reporting assignments for the semester.
Before sending my students out the door, I called the LAPD to inquire where I should advise my students to go, and what I should advise them to request. I expect that LAPD Chief William J. Bratton would appreciate this, especially after reading Bratton's response (11/15/2006) to Garza's opinion piece. I also expect Chief Bratton would be surprised to hear that, like Garza's students, I too was met with resistance, told that the records to which I sought access were not public, and given misinformation about LAPD procedure.
In his reply to Garza, Bratton blames, in part, the students' lack of preparedness and confusion about the difference between the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the California Public Records Act (CPRA). I couldn't agree with Bratton more about the need for journalists to pay attention to details like this. Just as details are important to those who investigate crime, they are important to those who report news. Any one of the students in my class will tell you that they've had this point drilled into them. Some have even received failing grades on assignments and quizzes for failing to pay attention to details, including some so seemingly minor as direction to "circle" a correct answer (underlined answers in such a case are marked as incorrect). These are lessons best learned in the classroom, not on the job.
As I am not a student, I'll presume I get a pass on the CPRA. I am not an expert, but I've filed enough written requests under the act to have a working knowledge of it. In addition, having been a reporter for more than 15 years, I can tell you that many public employees across this great nation are poorly schooled in the details of open records. Again, I speak not specifically of the LAPD, but of government employees in general, which is why I wanted to be sure to use the correct terminology when I sent my students on a quest for daily crime reports.
I began by calling the LAPD's Devonshire Division, but didn't end up there. At first I was bounced from person to person until I began to feel as though I was speaking a language no one else understood. I puzzled over how something I considered so routine could be so complicated. This experience is more than a month old as I write, therefore I cannot recall how many transfers it took before I was told that the reports were not public record because they contained information that would violate privacy. I also remember being advised that if the students wanted to review something specific they'd have to make a written request under the CPRA. At one point I became so frustrated that I responded by observing that LAPD would not appreciate being legally bound to reply to 19 public records requests. This was not so complicated as to require that.
I conceded that I might not have been using LAPD terminology. I suggested that perhaps LAPD might know these reports as a "blotter," or "crime log," or some sort of watch-commander's crime summary — anything that provided sufficient detail about the prior day's reported crimes as to allow a reasonable person to determine if any incidents were worth a closer look. I explained that newspaper reporters from coast to coast review such documentation in police headquarters everyday. It is how they determine what happened during the prior 24 hours, and what, if any of it, is news. Although the LAPD Crime Maps are a great online resource, the information is not thorough enough to make a fair judgement regarding newsworthiness.
I asked one of the people with whom I spoke how anyone at the LAPD could not at least be a little familiar with what is a routine practice practically everywhere else. The response I received was that what may be normal in other places is not the norm in LA.
When I asked a media spokesman at the LAPD how Los Angeles' many news outlets learn about crime in a timely manner absent such reports, I was told that they listen to the scanner. Now, having spent the bulk of my professional life in newsrooms, I know that scanners are not monitored 24-hours a day, so I stated as much. The reply was that City News Service does just that. I was told that City News Service was relied upon by the other news outlets in LA because of this. I was told that the demands of running a department the size of the LAPD don't allow for the kind of interaction experienced in smaller cities. Around and around I went until I wore out and stopped asking. I did not get the impression that I was being lied to. On the contrary, what I came away with was the sense that we were both speaking different languages, each of us perhaps assuming that we understood each other.
What concerns me now is that Bratton seems to blame well-meaning students, not to mention that he says something different from what I recall being told. Bratton's blog entry says:
If it is crime blotter information they want, that information is routinely provided to local newspapers by the area police stations through their Crime Analysis Units. The LAPD's Records and Identification Division routinely provides a crime blotter service to news agencies.Of course, I understand that what is available to the media cannot always be made available to the general public. It is one of the reasons the media is so important a part of democracy. There isn't a meeting room large enough to hold all the people who might want to attend one of Chief Bratton's press conferences, for example, and so, the media does it for them. I figured that part out when I was in college.
Failing in my quest for a review of the reports, I tried to find some other option and asked the LAPD media spokesman if there were any public meetings run by LAPD to which I could send my students. I wanted no special treatment, simply an access point at which my students could join the public in making contact with law enforcement. I was told of several options, including the Board of Police Commissioners, which holds meetings each Tuesday morning. However, I was warned not to send all my students to the commission meeting as there are only about 20 seats in the room in which the meeting is held and that they fill up quickly. (Why such a well-attended meeting isn't moved to a location with greater capacity is perhaps a question for another time.)
Ultimately, each of my students attended different meetings in a variety of jurisdictions, an adventure in and of itself as they endeavored to determine correct meeting times and locations. Some students went to public safety committee hearings in suburban communities. Some went to neighborhood policing meetings in LA. One enterprising student managed to review police reports with the CSUN police.
My conclusion was similar to something expressed by Bratton in his reply:
One surely cannot expect a police division in the Valley that on average responds to over 700 calls for service in a week, handles over 300 crime and arrest reports in a week to drop everything when a student walks in and wants crime information and wants it now.The demands on a department the size of the LAPD are significant, and neither I nor my colleagues expect it to stop what it's doing to help educate students hoping to become journalists.
That's why the LAPD goes to great lengths to make that information available through its Public Information Office, Media Relations Section and LAPDOnline.org. In March, the Department re-launched its website with more information than ever before including weekly updates of citywide crime statistics and a new state of the art tool called LAPD Crime Maps. It allows users, including college journalism students, the ability to find out exactly what crimes are happening, when and where in the city. Reporters should be encouraged to utilize the resources already available to them.
But what I learned isn't nearly as important as what the students learned after attending at least three government meetings each in LA and other municipalities (the list includes public safety committees, city councils, county boards of supervisors, school boards, etc...).
For most of the students, these were the first government meetings they've ever attended. And yet, the lesson some learned was not about the difficult and important tasks performed by elected officials and law enforcement. Rather, some of my students say the lesson they've learned relates to the frustration community members sometimes feel when trying to obtain information, or to do something as simple as determine the location and time of a meeting. It likely surprises no one to hear of a student being interrogated before being allowed to sit in a public meeting, the kind of meeting rarely attended by anyone from the public, especially a person with a notebook and pen. Likewise, would anyone doubt that a student journalist was disrespected for their pursuit of journalism? Though the comments may have come with a smile and a wink, they hardly impart a lesson of mutual respect. Instead, they risk putting students on the defensive for choosing a profession that is an integral part of democracy.
Nonetheless, I expect these students will become responsible professionals. Those among them who choose to pursue careers in journalism will hopefully be able to see beyond the negative experiences and come to understand the sacrifices made by public servants. I hope they will see not just a police officer with a weapon, for example, but a human being in a very dangerous situation striving to keep order, keep everyone alive, and make it home in time to kiss their kids goodnight. Hopefully these future journalists won't rush to judgement, but rather ask pertinent questions, seek the truth and write fair stories that allow readers to find their own way to a conclusion.
Of course, to do that, these student journalists are eventually going to have to learn how to get information, even if sometimes it means playing word games.