Police Beat
August 16, 2005 4:19 PM   Subscribe

Many papers publish a section which writes tidbits about local crimes. How do these writers get this info? Isn't this private information?

The reason I ask is - I see a lot of arrests in my neighborhood - and would like to know what is happening. Any ideas?
posted by mildred-pitt to Law & Government (12 answers total)
The newspapers get the information from the police and fire department logs.
posted by ericb at 4:20 PM on August 16, 2005

Police reports are public record, which is why the Smoking Gun is able to get them.
posted by cmonkey at 4:22 PM on August 16, 2005

You can go to your local police station and request to see police logs and incident records. In some states there might be a delay in getting them.
posted by ericb at 4:25 PM on August 16, 2005

This is the best available newspaper police log.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:29 PM on August 16, 2005

One word. Scanner. Hear what's happening as it happens and learn how your police department really works.
posted by @homer at 4:41 PM on August 16, 2005

Best answer: I work on campus at both the university newspaper and the TV station, and I've pulled a police beat shift before.

There's a scanner in the newsroom, and usually an editor/producer keeps it at their desk and alerts a reporter when they hear an interesting alert, like a big car accident, a fire or a bank robbery (that was a fun one).

But the bulk of the crime coverage comes from police reports. I don't know how this is done in every town, but here a group of reporters (one from the local TV news, one from the local paper, one from the university paper, and often one of the newbie journalism students working for the radio/TV station) meet every morning around 9:30-10:00 at the police station. The receptionist hands them two clipboards: copies the previous day's crime and traffic reports (the two are filed differently) and the reporters take notes on the interesting ones. The forms are incredibly jargony, but you learn to decipher them with practice. Sometimes things are blacked out -- there *are* details that aren't made public when it would endanger an ongoing investigation.

Then they all chat for a while -- these people see each other like this every morning, so they become friends -- and then the police department's media guy comes out to answer any questions they have. Usually he can't tell us any more than is on the forms (for example, when I was there, a rape report was filed, but he wouldn't tell us the victim's name or even the street the crime occurred on), but he can help clarify details and give updates on older crimes that are still being investigated, etc. This cop is an incredibly tight-lipped guy, and the Q&A is very straight forward.

As for your curiosity about your local crime records: because these are public record, you could go to your police station and see the same reports the press does. They may not bend over backwards to look up crimes specifically in your neighborhood, but they should be able to hand you the same clipboard of recent reports that the news folks get.
posted by katieinshoes at 5:25 PM on August 16, 2005

My first newspaper job was overnight desk clerk. I worked midnight to 8 AM. I listened to the scanner all night, and if anything major started, I would call the police department in question and get the details. If it was really something newsworthy, I'd rouse a photographer and/or reporter out of bed to go get the story.

But even if the scanner revealed nothing, every single night between 3 and 4 AM I would call every single PD in the two counties the paper covered. The dispatcher would answer, and I'd say "This is M-- calling from the Press. Anything to report?" If they had anything since the 7 PM shift ended, they'd read me the report over the line and I'd take it down. Sometimes this would mean I'd have to write a little four-inch story about a car accident, downed power line, or whatever. Other times they'd have nothing to report, but might tip me as to what they were working on.
posted by Miko at 5:54 PM on August 16, 2005

Best answer: I work at a big newspaper in a high-crime city, and the night cops reporter and night city editor listen to the scanner, and the night cops reporter calls the city's police districts every couple of hours, and that all seems simple enough. But when it's the weekend or the night cops reporter is on vacation and they have another reporter filling in, I hear conversations like this:
City editor: So, what did you get?
Reporter: Oh, it's all quiet in the [shitty part of town] district.
CE: All quiet in [shitty district]? I think that's an A1 story, so call them back and find out what's really going on.

So, the easy answer is, yes, just by calling and getting police reports, but the real answer is that it takes a lot of finesse and a long time on the job cultivating sources and learning not to take BS to do a police log well. Our night cops reporter is awesome.

Also, police department flaks try to give reporters the runaround, and I would expect them to do the same for a concerned resident, but, as pointed out all that stuff is public information.
posted by Airhen at 8:06 PM on August 16, 2005

Your profile says you are located in Seattle, so I'd recommend checking out the Crime Statistics published by the local police.
posted by MrZero at 8:25 PM on August 16, 2005

Sorry kirth - Northern Station in San Francisco has the best crime reports (reports themselves are all .pdf).
posted by jasper411 at 8:44 PM on August 16, 2005

"Isn't this private information?"
No, nor should it be. Where you live it might not matter -- today. But in reality, having that infoirmation public protects the arrested. People can't just be "disappeared" as they are in some countries. There is a paper trail of their arrest, and where they are. The police are accountable. (At least until Homeland Security removes that important American right too.)
posted by cccorlew at 8:41 AM on August 18, 2005

"Isn't this private information?"

When I've written witness statements, the cops warned me that they become part of the public record so they suggested that I limit what personal details I include. Example: where I'm supposed to list my address, they suggested I put my work address (the incident happened at my workplace anyways) to prevent the perp from using my personal details for nefarious purposes. YMMV.
posted by raedyn at 12:10 PM on August 18, 2005

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