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Centre for Investigative Journalism
Annual Convention: Individual Reports


by Barrie Zwicker


"Whenever I bargain with the police, I end up walking away disgusted."

Jock Ferguson


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 politician and whose attention to duty was properly reported by your paper (from a U.S. reporter).
  • Police historians and archivists.
  • Those from whom the police buy services (such as operators 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 police forces.
  • Military personnel who sometimes work with police forces.

Among documents and printed materials that can aid the police reporter are:

  • The police department budget.
  • Court transcripts, when police are involved in court procedures. Search warrants (public documents in most provinces), subpoenas.
  • Reports of commission of inquiry into police activities.
  • 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 Toronto).

"If you can get your hands on that, it's worthwhile, because it lists more than the police. It lists sometimes their contacts — who they 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 information with 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., Advocate. '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 away disgusted."

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 Global TV in 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 investigating a "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 in jail."

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 technique, 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 off..."


Published in Sources May/June 1980


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