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From the Spring 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 18. For 150 consecutive days between April…

From the Spring 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 18.

For 150 consecutive days between April and September 2007, Ithaca Journal reporter Raymond Drumsta would arrive at work and send an e-mail message to the Ithaca Attorney General’s Office, requesting police incident reports under the state’s Freedom of Information Law.

More than a year later — not to mention $1,000 in copying fees and another $1,000 in staff time later — Drumsta simply goes online to gather the reports.

“What did I learn from this?” Drumsta asks himself. “That government agencies have to give out information, but that they may not be set up real well to do that because not everyone always asks for information.”

The Journal’s continuous document requests prompted the city to go above and beyond the state’s records law and set up a Web site, which contains police “blotter” information.

The Web site, which is updated daily, provides all of the information most often contained in an incident report, such as street names, a narrative (if one exists) and whether or not arrests were made.

“In a small town like Ithaca, relationships between a newspaper and its community are much more personal than that in a big city,” said Bruce Estes, managing editor at the Journal. “FOIL requests in a small town can strain those relationships, as it certainly did in this case. When the Journal’s other efforts failed to improve the flow of police information, FOIL was the only tool left for us to use.”

The Journal, which serves a town of about 30,000 people with a daily circulation of just under 20,000, enjoys a somewhat unique situation with its police department.

Many similarly sized newspapers still struggle to get basic incident reports from their local law enforcement agencies and still contend with paper-based systems when obtaining records.

Most states don’t legally require agencies to compile any type of blotter system at all. The law requires them to provide to the public the information that is within incident reports — the same information that some agencies, such as the Ithaca Police Department, have taken upon themselves to assemble into a blotter to provide timely crime reports on a daily basis.

Smaller newspapers across the country — from California to Georgia to New York — all have their share of challenges when it comes to interacting with local police departments, with or without the help of technology.

“I have always felt that the news media and law enforcement community have a symbiotic relationship,” said Bob Freeman, executive director of the New York Committee on Open Government.

“What reporters acquire quickly from the police is based on the nature of their relationship, but certainly the Internet can eliminate some of the problems that have been faced in terms of delay and can encourage a positive relationship between the law enforcement community and the news media, and therefore the public.”

 

Lagging legislation

Many newspapers haven’t been able to take advantage of the potential benefits of advancements in technology when they are still grappling with the basic legal issues surrounding which kinds of law enforcement records are open.

Layne Bruce, executive director of the Mississippi Press Association, said his organization is pushing for legislation that would require law enforcement agencies to compile incident reports, but that right now newspapers gather this type of information in various informal ways, or, they don’t receive it at all.

The bill clarifies what exactly is public, such as the typical blotter information. It does not, however, address the type of system agencies would use to provide this information to requesters, Bruce said.

“Down the road, technology will become more of an issue for us,” Bruce said. “We are a very rural state so technology that comes about in New York, for instance, is going to be slow to trickle down to Mississippi.”

He said eventually, though, a standard uniform incident report would ideally make use of technology to make the records accessible.

“I believe that through continued efforts and facilitation of technology we will get there so the public has access to information about its business,” Bruce said. “Publicly funded agencies using our tax money should be more accountable to our taxpayers. Ultimately, we’ll get there, but it’s slow going.”

 

Amid the technology wave…

Other newspapers fall somewhere in between the success in New York and the struggles Bruce cites in Mississippi.

The East Cobber — a free monthly paper based in Eastern Cobb County, Ga., with a circulation of 40,000 — is grappling with acquiring daily incident reports but does receive a much more restricted list of police blotter information via e-mail.

The Cobb County Police Department picks major incident reports to include in e-mails it sends out to thousands of subscribers, including individual citizens and media organizations.

Cynthia Rozzo, the paper’s editor and publisher, said transparency is still lacking in this system, however, and thinks the police could be skewing the information, since they’re picking what reports to send out.

“It’s the fox guarding the henhouse,” Rozzo said. “How do we know what’s really going on?”

Rozzo has been attempting to get access to police incident reports, which are public records in Georgia, from the county police department since January.

She said the office doesn’t provide her with the public records because it claims it doesn’t have the manpower or electronic capability to compile and then redact the legally exempt information. Rozzo counters that she’s requesting public information, and the department has an obligation to comply with the law.

“Why can’t they find an IT solution to meet Georgia’s Sunshine Law in providing the public with public records?” Rozzo asked. “The ideal solution would be to put them up on the Internet. They should use the electronic information age as a tool. Get it out there so I don’t have to pester them. Joe Q. Public could sit on his computer and see why the police were down the street.”

Although the department does not have quite the e-blotter system the Ithaca police set up, its two-year-old Police E-mail Notification System (PENS) includes a Web site and an e-mail system providing similar, yet substantially less, police incident information.

Robert Quigley, a spokesman for Cobb County, said it’s a logistical hurdle in satisfying Rozzo’s requests, and he acknowledged that the information she is asking for is indeed public.

“It comes down to a matter of process,” Quigley said. “Every record she wants access to is legally available to her.” He also said the general nature of Rozzo’s requests — the fact that she’s asking for incident reports in general — makes it more difficult to pin down the information.

He said the PENS alerts, which are set out every morning about the previous night’s noteworthy calls, and the press releases the office e-mails out regarding major incidents, has helped the department provide better information to the public.

Switching over to e-mail rather than fax, something the office did several years ago, has also helped maximize communication between both the police and the media and the police and its citizens, Quigley said.

 

A double-edged sword

For Tim Crews, publisher and editor of The Sacramento Mirror in California, technology is a double-edged sword. One the one hand, it’s helped him gather crime reports for the past five or six years that he publishes in his small, semiweekly newspaper.

On the other hand, though, it hasn’t helped or hindered the newspaper’s content or presence online.

“The Internet hasn’t changed the content of the Mirror,” Crews said. “We don’t get a dime of revenue off the Internet.” It’s the relationships the small newspaper — with less than six full-time employees — has built with various law enforcement agencies that has really allowed them to “muckrake.”

“I don’t think it’s just a matter of the technology,” Crews said. “It’s also a matter that this newspaper has been around for 17 years and developed relationships with these people. We’re a pretty hard-edged little newspaper, a little muckraker.”

Throughout the years, Crews’ newspaper has sued various government agencies, including the attorney general’s office and the city of Willows, for failing to comply with the state’s records law, including not handing over public police records.

“Trying to get information from the government is like pulling teeth, especially for little papers,” Crews said.

Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspapers and Publishers Association, echoes Crews’ thoughts on the importance of building relationships. He said editors and publishers of smaller newspapers have an opportunity to create personal relationships with their local law enforcement agencies in a way that their larger counterparts may not.

“It’s always good to have a good relationship with the management at an agency in order to resolve issues that come up periodically,” Newton said.

 

Working with nothing

All the technology in the world can’t help reporters gather crime information if their relationships with the local law enforcement agencies are nonexistent, as one Michigan newspaper learned.

The Argus-Press [Owosso] has had to submit records requests for virtually anything it wants from the Shiawassee County Sheriff’s Office since January, when it inquired about an alleged assault within the department. The paper’s reporters now have to wait the legally mandated five days to receive timely crime reports, said Sarah Bazzetta, managing editor at the Argus-Press.

“We’re trying to get the news out to the public and that’s what makes it so difficult,” she said. “[The sheriff] is really short-changing everyone in the community because we’re the only daily newspaper in the county that covers these types of breaking news in the county.”

Bazzetta said they have to use the state’s Freedom of Information Act to request information that they could have previously just inquired about at the station. The office always responds on the very last day of the allotted five days, but as any daily newspaper journalist knows, this is too long to wait for crime news.

“We’re not a weekly where we can wait around a couple days for breaking news,” said Liz Shepard, the staff writer covering the cops and court beat. “It’s definitely done a disservice to our readers in our inability to acquire the information as soon as possible.”

The newspaper’s coverage has indeed suffered, since it covers a largely rural county where the sheriff’s department has primary jurisdiction. Shepard still goes out to any incidents she gets wind of, either from scanners or news tips called in, but once she gets to the scene she must rely on third parties for her information.

A photographer also accompanies Shepard so the paper can run a photo with any major incidents, Bazzetta said. The accompanying caption, though, is somewhat lacking.

“We’ll run something like, ‘There was a crash on this road at this time and due to the sheriff’s new policy, he will refuse to give us any more information.’ ”

She said they’ve run that type of caption three or four times so far, and will continue to do so until the sheriff’s policy, or lack thereof changes.

 

‘Warm and fuzzy’ relationships

The Journal and Ithaca Police Department have shown it’s possible to capitalize on what technology has to offer to help mend a crumbling bond between a law enforcement agency and a newspaper. In response to what the relationship was like during the Journal’s repeated records requests, Vallely said it wasn’t exactly ideal.

“Was it warm and fuzzy? Heck no,” he said. “It was contentious and generated a lot of work for the folks in the city attorney’s office and a lot of work for us.”

But, now he said he has realized the whole ordeal has helped answer the needs of both the media and the residents, while also making vast improvements to its entire system.

“It’s certainly enhanced the relationship between our department and the local media,” Vallely said. “Is it warm and fuzzy? Yes.”

Estes said the e-blotter provides more raw materials reporters can use to connect the dots and notice patterns in recurring crimes, such as burglaries and auto thefts.

The Journal posts a majority of the logs on its Web site, and hopes to someday produce databases and distribution maps where residents can tell, based upon location, where certain crimes are occurring.

“The system helps a resource-pressed police department and a resource-pressed daily newspaper meet the information demands of their community,” Estes said.

These days, Drumsta comes in every morning and checks the logs online. He calls or e-mails specific people in the police department to gather more details about events he deems newsworthy. He said the e-blotter has helped him bolster his stories and “see crime in context.”

“It’s a give and take,” Drumsta said. “They’re helping me learn more about law enforcement, making my job more efficient. And, to have this log shows they have 100 percent transparency. Now, we’re all on the same sheet of music.”