Taking dictation from the police is no longer good enough. In fact, it never was.

Photo (cc) 2013 by Victoria Pickering

As you may have read elsewhere, the original police account of George Floyd’s death was mostly accurate yet completely false. It read in part:

Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.

Floyd’s murder at the hands — or, rather, at the knee — of Derek Chauvin is likely to have long-lasting repercussions. One of those repercussions should be a rethinking of how journalists report routine police news. It has long been the custom for reporters at small community news organizations to visit the police station every morning, flip through the publicly available log, and report what’s there. If something seems interesting, the journalist might ask to see the incident report written up by an officer. And then this gets regurgitated, the ultimate in one-source reporting.

That’s how I did it in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s how we were all taught to do it. And in a large city like Minneapolis, a man who, according to police, died from medical issues while being arrested for forgery would probably not warrant a follow-up. You’d report it, and then you’d be on your way.

Interestingly enough, one of the papers I worked for in the early part of my career would not publish the names of people who’d been arrested and charged with a crime unless it was fairly big news. We younger reporters thought it was ridiculous, and we chafed at not being able to tell the whole story. But the editor, who was also one of the owners, explained that since our coverage of the court system was spotty at best, we’d likely never know if the person had been convicted or acquitted — and if it were the latter, we’d have smeared their reputation without cause. My editor was right, and ahead of his time. We were wrong.

Earlier this week The Washington Post reported on a case in Loveland, Colorado, where police last year arrested a 73-year-old woman who’d walked out of a Walmart with $13.88 worth of stuff without paying. It turns out that she had dementia and, as is clear from the police video, presented no threat to anyone. Yet she was thrown to the ground and handcuffed, with an officer twisting her arm in such a way that she suffered from a broken bone and a dislocated shoulder.

Can you imagine what the police log item might have looked like? No big deal, right?

The problems presented by taking the police at their word was the subject of an exchange the other day involving my GBH News colleague Saraya Wintersmith, South End News and Bay Windows publisher Sue O’Connell and me. (Note: Within the last few minutes I received a press release saying that O’Connell’s papers are up for sale. More to come.)

That, in turn, drew a comment from Julie Manganis, who covers the courts for The Salem News and its sister papers.

Manganis is right, but the News is unusual in its ongoing dedication to court reporting — and even then, most routine police news doesn’t rise to that level.

An additional complication is that many police departments now post their logs online. Under the state’s public records law, police departments must keep daily records of incidents and, in the case of arrests, the name, address and charge against the person who was detained. Members of the public, including journalists, are entitled to see this information. But now these items don’t even get the light vetting that might take place when a reporter asks an officer to explain something. It’s right out there for everyone to see.

Indeed, as I’m writing this, I’m looking at a report from one of the larger cities in the Boston area about a woman who was arrested and charged with trespassing. It’s a pretty thorough entry, and yes, it includes her name, age and address. It is probably accurate. I have no idea if it’s also true — that is, if it offers all the context we need to know to understand what happened.

Major crimes will always receive journalistic scrutiny. Official sources may have the upper hand early on, but as reporters keep digging, they’ll generally ferret out the truth. But we need a serious rethink of how we cover routine police news. And we need to do it at a time when local news resources are stretched to the limit.

One rule we might follow is that if an incident is so minor that it’s not worth devoting the resources to getting all sides, then it’s probably not worth reporting in the first place. But this is just the beginning of a conversation about how to practice ethical journalism at a time when the old ways of doing things are no longer good enough. And never were.

More: I’m pasting Paul Bass’ comment here because I think it adds some important information on how to do it the right way. Bass is the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit digital news organization.

We have always felt strongly at the Independent that media should not print names of arrestees unless we have their side, we have seen independent evidence corroborating the charges, an immediate threat exists to public safety requiring divulging the name, or a court has adjudicated the charge. I have personally gotten flak over the years from mainstream corporate journalists who felt outraged that we were being so “elitist.” The policy began after noticing that many Black people in new Haven were charged with crimes they didn’t commit. (See this Nieman Journalism Lab story.)

A Baltimore TV station’s incendiary ‘error’

A television station in Baltimore edited video of protesters calling for the jailing of “killer cops” to make it sound like they were chanting “kill a cop.” I find it horrifying that anyone this side of the white supremacist movement would do something so irresponsible at a time when relations between the police and communities of color are already fraught.

David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun reports that WBFF, a Sinclair-owned Fox affiliate, has called the incident “an error” and posted an apology on its website (which I can’t find on  the station’s home page or its news page this morning). Some error. In fact, the protesters were chanting, “We won’t stop. We can’t stop ’til killer cops are in cell blocks.” The footage was recorded at a protest in Washington on Sunday and was carried by C-SPAN.

If this really was an error, it’s a matter of someone making some pretty ugly assumptions about the protesters. The fact that the line “are in cell blocks” was edited out raises serious questions about whether this was truly an error. Mediaite has posted the original WBFF video. You should take a look.

Is this the media fail of the year? I think so. Bad as Rolling Stone’s false story about a sexual assault at UVA was, WBFF’s ignorant stunt could incite violence. Broadcast stations such as WBFF are licensed and regulated by the FCC. I am not a fan of letting the government poke into matters involving the First Amendment. But in this case I’d say a hearing is in order. We need to know how this happened.

Police-records bill on its way to governor’s desk

It looks like we have our first WGBH News Muzzle Awards winner of 2015. Last night the Massachusetts Legislature passed Senate Bill 2334, which, as I wrote here yesterday, would block access to certain police records now open to the public.

The ostensible purpose is to protect victims of domestic violence, but as First Amendment lawyer Jeffrey Pyle tells David Scharfenberg of The Boston Globe, “Problems with the criminal justice system are rarely, if ever, solved by decreasing transparency.”

The bill had not come to a vote before Scharfenberg’s deadline, but Globe reporter Michael Levenson tweets that it’s now on its way to Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk — and that he’s likely to sign it.

By the way, Scharfenberg calls the bill “a little-noticed measure.” But the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association flagged it months ago, and I brought it up on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press.” If this had gotten more attention early on, we might not find ourselves where we are today.

Bill would block access to some police records

The Massachusetts Legislature may vote later today on Senate Bill 2334, which would block access to certain police records now open to the public. The people’s business should be done in the open, and legislators should vote no. I’ve already emailed my representative and senator. It’s easy enough to do, and I urge you to click here.

The Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association explains:

Bill Advances to Block Access to Police Reports and Logs

Could Result in Protecting Perpetrators from Disclosure

A legislative conference committee yesterday issued a report (SB 2334) that will close police reports and logs now open to the public. The bill is likely to be voted on today. I urge you to contact your legislators and register your opposition to this language.

Currently, G.L. c. 41, s. 97D provides that reports of rape and sexual assault are not public. This bill would add to that list “reports of abuse perpetrated by family or household members.”

Also, the bill would amend G.L. c. 41, s. 98F, to exempt from public view two categories of information from police logs:

  • Any information concerning responses to reports of domestic violence, rape or sexual assault.
  • Any entry concerning the arrest of a person for assault, assault and battery or violation of a protective order where the victim is a family or household member, as defined in section 1 of chapter 209A.

As we have noted before, closing police logs could have the unintended consequence of shielding perpetrators from public disclosure — even when the perpetrators are public officials or others in positions of trust or authority.

One example, described in this Boston Globe article, was the 2012 arrest of Waltham’s police chief on domestic assault charges. Had this law been in effect, his arrest would have been shielded from the public.

Robert Ambrogi, Executive Director
Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association

City settles with man arrested for video-recording police

Andrew Phelps of the Nieman Journalism Lab has posted a useful round-up following the ACLU’s announcement that the city of Boston will pay $170,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a man who was arrested while attempting to video-record police activity.

The suit was filed by Simon Glik, a lawyer, after he was arrested while recording the arrest of a teenager on the Boston Common in October 2007. The settlement follows a ruling last fall by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit that Glik was “exercising clearly established First Amendment rights.”

The Boston Police Department has since reversed its stance that such video-recording violated the state’s wiretapping law. Said Glik’s lawyer, Daniel Milton:

It is important that citizens be able to record police acting in public so that the police can be held accountable for their actions. As we see all around the country and world, images captured from people’s cellphones can have a remarkably important effect on public debate of public information. It is ultimately a tool of democracy.

As media observer Dan Gillmor noted on Twitter, “It’s not the city of Boston that will pay for violating 1st Amendment; it’s the taxpayers. Good result anyway.”

Here’s the full text of the ACLU press release:

BOSTON — Simon Glik, a Boston attorney wrongly arrested and prosecuted for using his cell phone to record police officers forcefully arresting a man on the Boston Common, has reached a settlement with the City of Boston on his civil rights claims. The settlement requires the City to pay Glik $170,000 for his damages and legal fees.

Mr. Glik was forced to defend himself against criminal charges of illegal wiretapping, aiding the escape of a prisoner, and disturbing the peace. After a judge threw out those charges, Glik filed a civil rights suit against the city and the arresting officers in federal court in Boston, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Boston attorneys Howard Friedman and David Milton. This settlement resolves that case.

The settlement follows a landmark ruling last August by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, declaring that the First Amendment protects the right to record police carrying out their duties in a public place, Glik v. Cunniffe 655 F.3d 78 (2011). The First Circuit’s ruling is binding only in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico, but its persuasive reasoning has been cited by courts and lawyers nationwide facing the recurrent issue of police arresting people for filming them.

The Massachusetts wiretap statute prohibits only secret recording of audio. The First Circuit in Glik’s case affirmed that an arrest under the statute for openly recording the police would violate not only the First Amendment right to gather information but also the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against false arrests.

“The law had been clear for years that openly recording a video is not a crime. It’s sad that it takes so much for police to learn the laws they were supposed to know in the first place. I hope Boston police officers will never again arrest someone for openly recording their public actions,” said Glik.

“The court’s opinion made clear that people cannot be arrested simply for documenting the actions of police officers in public. With this issue squarely resolved against it, it made sense for the City to settle the case rather than continuing to waste taxpayer money defending it,” said David Milton, one of the attorneys for Glik.

As part of the settlement, Glik agreed to withdraw his appeal to the Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel. He had complained about the Internal Affairs Division’s investigation of his complaint and the way they treated him. IAD officers made fun of Glik for filing the complaint, telling him his only remedy was filing a civil lawsuit. After the City spent years in court defending the officers’ arrest of Glik as constitutional and reasonable, IAD reversed course after the First Circuit ruling and disciplined two of the officers for using “unreasonable judgment” in arresting Glik.

After Glik filed suit, the City of Boston appeared to change its policy of letting police officers arrest and charge people with illegal wiretapping for recording them with cameras or cellphones in plain sight. The City developed a training video based on facts similar to the Glik case, instructing police officers not to arrest people who openly record what they are doing in public.

“The First Amendment includes the freedom to observe and document the conduct of government officials, which is crucial to a democracy and a free society. We hope that police departments across the country will draw the right conclusions from this case,” said Sarah Wunsch, ACLU of Massachusetts staff attorney.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

When public information isn’t public

Many police departments in Central Massachusetts violate the law when asked to produce public police-log records, according to an investigation by the Worcester Sunday Telegram. Some flat-out refused. Others demanded identification in violation of the law, and three even went so far as to run a database check on the person requesting the records, the paper reports.

The law is clear,” the story begins. “Police departments must keep and update a daily log of their activities, reported crimes and arrests, and that log must be readily available to the public at no cost and with no questions asked.”

This interactive graphic provides a quick overview as to which police departments were in compliance and which weren’t.

Any of us who has worked in journalism knows that some police departments cooperate only with reporters they know and trust, despite the state public-records law, which requires them to produce records pertaining to incidents and people who’ve been arrested.

Police departments are not required to produce detailed incident reports about pending investigations.

Whenever I’ve sent students out to obtain police-log records, the results have been mixed. Boston Police, whose headquarters is a short walk from the Northeastern campus, was so accustomed to student requests that they’d form a virtual welcoming committee, giving them everything they needed before they were even asked. I eventually had to require that students visit other police departments — Boston was making it too easy.

But some police departments in Greater Boston were so uncooperative that my students were unable to complete the assignment unless they returned two or three times.

Media lawyer Jonathan Albano, a member of the board of directors of the Northeastern-affiliated New England First Amendment Coalition, tells the Telegram:

This shows why you need the public records law. People in those positions worry about if it’s all right or not to give someone this public information. After a while, they start to think of it as their information and that it’s their job to protect it.

The Telegram’s investigation also demonstrates the dangers of what happens when the police become a law unto themselves.

In Cambridge, a dubious balancing act

I have not yet read the report of the Cambridge Review Committee, which investigated last July’s arrest of Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. But unless someone tells me otherwise, I’m not sure I need to — the bottom line is enough.

According to news accounts, the committee found that both Gates and Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer, were to blame, and that each man missed opportunities to “de-escalate” the situation, which ended when Gates was arrested on disorderly-conduct charges. Those charges were quickly dismissed.

The only thing that strikes me as worth saying — again — is that Gates clearly lost it that day. But he was standing in his own home, believing (probably falsely) that he was the victim of racial profiling. Crowley had a badge, a gun and the certain knowledge that Gates was the resident, not an intruder.

Both men are not to blame. Crowley should have left.

Martin Finucane of the Boston Globe covers the story here, and Laura Crimaldi of the Boston Herald catches up with Gates’ lawyer, Harvard Law school professor Charles Ogletree.

Earlier coverage.

“Contempt of cop” and the Gates case

When Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct inside his own home in Cambridge last July, the incident struck many of us as being less about race than about the right of someone who had done nothing wrong to mouth off to a police officer.

Now comes the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, which has a story in today’s Boston Globe showing that what happened to Gates was part of a pattern in Cambridge. Though the center found no evidence of racial profiling, it did find that the majority of people charged with disorderly conduct from 2004 to ’09 were arrested because of something they said. A key excerpt:

The most striking conclusion of the review of Cambridge police data is that the majority of those arrested for disorderly conduct were allegedly yelling, often screaming obscenities, in front of police before the handcuffs snapped shut. More than 60 percent of the disorderly arrests reviewed by center involved some sort of allegedly inflammatory speech, such as talking back to the police, more commonly known as “contempt of cop.’’

Gates, as you recall, was arrested by Sgt. James Crowley, who had been dispatched to Gates’ home following a report that two men had been seen trying to force their way in. (Gates and his taxi driver had forced open a stuck door.) Gates, apparently believing he’d been racially profiled, exchanged words with Crowley, though the two disagree over exactly what was said.

We’re still waiting to hear why Crowley wrote in his report that a witness told him at the scene that two black men were observed trying to get in. The woman later said she made no mention of race when she called the police station, and that she never spoke directly with Crowley, as he claimed. Perhaps that will be explained in a report by a city task force, which, according to the Cambridge Chronicle, could be released any day now.

A social compact on the verge of breakdown

Public employees are our friends, our neighbors and our family members. Police officers, firefighters and teachers are a necessary part of a well-ordered civil society. But in Massachusetts, the social compact is on the verge of breaking down because of paychecks and benefits for public employees that are grotesquely out of whack with what folks in the private sector earn.

Here are four quick examples — three from the Boston Globe:

  • Boston police officers are getting as much as $250,000 in salary and overtime — some of it legitimately, some of it for staying a few minutes past their shift to finish paperwork. “The salaries are excessive,” Police Commissioner Edward Davis told the Globe. “Clearly the average person on the street does not make this kind of money.”
  • In Framingham, town employees and retirees are at loggerheads with the taxpayers who fund their health benefits, which in most cases amount to 87 percent of premiums — a far better deal than anyone in the private sector can hope to get.
  • An arbitrator recently awarded Boston firefighters a 19 percent raise over four years in return for agreeing to drug and alcohol tests and some limits on sick time. The Globe has called on the city council to reject the $74 million cost of the agreement, but there are no signs that the members will find the requisite backbone to do so.
  • There’s a new reform administration in charge of the Essex Regional Retirement Board, and it seems that every day it finds something gross crawling out from under a rock. The latest, according to the ever-vigilant Salem News: the previous board spent more than $200,000 in legal fees to advance a sleazy scheme to put 39 workers on a housing authority payroll for one day so they would be eligible for higher benefits and Social Security.

How this will play out in the fall election is anyone’s guess. You’d think it would have a significant effect on the governor’s race. But Gov. Deval Patrick has pushed harder (though not hard enough) against such abuses than his predecessors, and neither Republican candidate Charlie Baker nor Treasurer Tim Cahill, the independent, has advanced a credible case for being the change agent voters are looking for.

At the very least, though, Republicans ought to be able to make their first significant gains in the legislature since 1990.