Somewhere in the city Saturday night, two men got into an argument. It escalated into a gang beating involving 10 other men. The beating was a bad one and, as the police incident report said, the victim was bandaged up afterwards.
Normally, this would be worth a brief in the paper. Not a murder, but newsworthy nonetheless.
Ditto for a Rite Aid employee who was caught with five bottles of prescription drugs in his pants pockets. The police report said the employee was intending on stealing them and selling on the street.
I came across these two reports while covering the police beat Sunday. Neither report made it into the paper, however. It's the byproduct of an effort by the Buffalo Police Department over the past couple of months to cut back on the information included in incident reports made available to the press.
This follows a series of incidents over the past year-and-a-half that have involved, among other things, Deputy Commissioner Daniel Derenda (I originally had the first name wrong) storming into the press office at Police HQ to confront a reporter about a story in the works, Mayor Byron Brown lobbying to get a crime story killed, his press secretary suggesting a lead on a story and police officials demanding that The News clear crime items before publishing them.
Along the way, Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson has wondered aloud in front of a reporter as to why he should make it "easy" for the press to do its job and Brown raised the specter of limiting The News' access to routine police reports.
The News is able to access incident and arrest reports via a computer in a press office in Police HQ. Last year department officials threatened to deny The News continued access to these reports. They became especially irate after we ran a story in October 2007 detailing how the police failed to alert the public about a serial predator who had been terrorizing old people in the Broadway-Fillmore area. The next business day, we were informed we were losing our computer access to police reports.
The department backed off its threat after a face-to-face meeting between the mayor and our editor, Margaret Sullivan, who was, and remains, strong in her belief that the press requires continued access to police records to inform the public. I guess the mayor didn't like the prospect of being tagged in the paper as restricting the public's right to know.
But that didn't end the administration's effort to limit what the police share with the press, and therefore, the public. Instead, routine information is now often omitted from incident reports. It's been going on for a couple of months now.
I've covered police on and off for more than 20 years and I've never seen such incomplete reports as I did Sunday. I quizzed some of my colleagues, who say the same thing. A lot less information, a lot less cooperation filling in the blanks.
In the case of the aforementioned gang beating, no location was mentioned in the report, aside from the police district it occurred in. No address on the victim. Bare bones.
As for the drug theft, the report said it occurred at a Rite Aid. No store address. No address on the defendant, either. Again, not a whole lot to work with.
Until a couple of months ago, police reports routinely included the address of the crime scene. We also got the address of defendants charged with crime, usually with an age or date of birth. Enough to write a respectable brief, maybe even a short story.
This lack of information would not be as much of a problem if the reporter could pick up the phone and talk to the cops. But the department imposed an edict in March 2007 precluding all but a handful of police department employees from talking to reporters. Not even most higher-ups are permitted to talk.
Precinct lieutenants? No. The lieutenant who runs homicide? Not without permission. Rank-and-file cops, the ones who really know what is going on? You've got to be kidding?! Even the technicians who input the reports have been told to not provide reporters with even the most basic information, such as street addresses, if we come looking for missing details.
The only ones authorized to speak to reporters are Mike DeGeorge, the department's civilian spokesman, and Gipson and his two deputy commissioners. DeGeorge has become the go-to guy, but the problem is, when reporters call him, he often knows less than we do.
Sometimes he gets the information. Sometimes quickly. Sometimes not so quickly. Problem is, we're in the business of news, not history, especially in this era of instant news via the Web.
(My own experience with DeGeorge: The last two times I called him, including Monday, to discuss this post, he failed to return the call).
We didn't abuse the access we had to reports. We keep the names of sex crime victims out of the paper. Ditto for many elderly victims. And we use discretion when it comes to naming other crime victims and where they live. We're mindful of protecting victims and witnesses and not compromising ongoing investigations.
How we use the details contained in the crime reports was never an issue in discussions The News had with police and administration officials. Implied throughout this process it that it's largely a matter that officials in City Hall and Police HQ don't like some of the stories we've written and they'd like to see less crime news in the paper. And one way of doing that is making it harder for reporters to do their jobs. Limit their access to people, put less information in the paperwork.
This tactic runs counter to the trend nationwide, where a growing number of police departments are making more and more crime information available to the press and public, often via the Web.