Centre for Investigative Journalism
Annual Convention: Individual Reports
by Barrie Zwicker
"Whenever I bargain with the police, I end up walking away disgusted."
MANY IDEAS FOR COVERING police forces and
getting information from police officers were brought forward at the
CIJ session on police reporting.
Possible sources in police circles include:
- The police union. "They're
aware of every problem," said a police reporter from the West.
- The "guy in the police association who wants to be
president next year," according to an Ontario police reporter.
"And policemen's wives," he added.
"Policemen take their problems home with them."
- A guy who's retired as a constable after 40 years
(from a Montreal reporter).
- A cop who gave a traffic ticket to a bullying
and whose attention to duty was properly reported by your paper (from a
- Police historians and archivists.
- Those from whom the police buy services (such as
of police car pounds). "On a slow day you can find low-grade scandals:
do police get their cars fixed there?"
- Accounting firms which are adjuncts to
- Military personnel who sometimes work with police
Among documents and printed materials that can aid the police reporter
- The police department budget.
- Court transcripts, when police are involved in court
procedures. Search warrants (public documents in most provinces),
- Reports of commission of inquiry into
- The internal police phone book (not difficult to
obtain, usually, through the police public relations office, according
to Richard Cleroux, Montreal bureau chief for The Globe and Mail of
"If you can get your hands on that, it's
worthwhile, because it lists
more than the police. It lists sometimes their contacts — who
have at the bank, for instance, for bad cheques, who you call to seal
off (a bridge), for instance." Cleroux also mentioned:
- Police alumni asociation newsletters.
- The monthly publications of the RCMP, Ontario
Provincial Police and QPP.
- Police force organizational charts. "On a given
story you can follow the chain of command up or down, depending on your
needs," said Cleroux.
"From the documents you cultivate your sources. But it's a hard world"
Cleroux warned. "It's hard to get your hands on paper, on real paper."
Whether reporters should be party to exchanges of
police was discussed at some length, with the consensus being that it
seldom works to the reporter's advantage. "Police are not good
bargainers," said panelist Rita Jensen of the Stamford, Conn.,
'They want me to give all I've got, and then they want to
keep what they've got a secret, and they want to control investigations
and they want to remain in power. I don't want that sort of bargain. I
find it abhorrent, and I find that whenever I bargain I end up walking
The CIA has a rule, said one participant, to
"exchange information but get more than you give. Make a profit."
A notable exception was raised by Jock Ferguson of
Toronto. "I had dealings with the commercial fraud squad of the RCMP,
which is the only arm of any police force that I ever felt in any way
comfortable dealing with," Ferguson said.
Ferguson had spent a considerable length of time
"fairly complex fraud case. I was at the stage where I needed stuff
from the guy's office to prove my story. I had everything else, all the
corroborating evidence, but I couldn't break into the guy's office. So
I went to see a guy at the commercial fraud squad. It took about a week
and a half to work out all the details... it worked." The police raided the office. Ferguson got film. "I got a
much better story and the police got a (conviction). The guys are all
Long-range benefits can be had by helpfulness to
police forces, one
participant commented. But benefits depend on the sophistication of the
force you're dealing with. Generally, it's chancey.
Editors make a mistake in always assigning their
police reporter to
police stories, whether the stories embarrass or please the force.
Media outlets should adopt the same technique the
police use in interrogations: the good guy / bad guy approach.
As Jensen put it: "Police officers use an old
the nice guy
and the bad guy, when they interview a suspect, right? The nice guy
says 'Look, I'm holding this bastard back from you. He wants to beat
the hell out of you, but I'm protecting you. Just tell me the truth.
I'm your friend. I'm on your side. I understand.' In the same way, to
cover the police department you have to have a nice reporter who says I
don't know what the hell she's doing. She's writing all this crap about
you. I don't know where she gets off. I have no control over her. I
like you guys. I think you do a great job.' I don't think you can have
them in the same person, because (police) do stick together and they do
get angry and they do cut you
Published in Sources May/June 1980
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