Getting Crime News Straight

CRIME BEAT

After A Chilling Message, Baltimore Co. Police Change Tack On Informing The Media

July 05, 2009|By PETER HERMANN

Every week, some people who live in and around Towson get an e-mail from their police precinct summarizing significant crimes.

Last month, residents learned that a dozen youngsters had robbed a man at gunpoint on Castle Drive, taking his wallet and two cell phones. Two days later, another man robbed a bank at the Giant on York Road. Eleven houses were burglarized in a week. And a group of kids stole bicycles from the backyard of a house in the Gaywood community.

All useful information provided by the Baltimore County Police Department as a public service to keep residents informed and alert. But it's information the police in the Towson Precinct would rather not spread beyond its boundaries, and certainly not in a newspaper.

Crime news to the citizens can come unfiltered from local commanders.

Crime news to the news media must come through designated spokesmen.

Sgt. Stephen Fink, angry that residents had passed along the Towson Precinct's Weekly Crime Report to The Baltimore Sun (repeatedly, I might add), sent out a stern e-mail warning them to stop, saying the news media is to receive only crime news that is "properly prepared for public information."

Fink's e-mail, of course, was promptly forwarded to me (repeatedly).

The sergeant told residents that if other news outlets learn that The Sun "is getting extra access to police information, they are going to want the same thing" and "will come looking for more." He added, "To keep everyone on an even playing field, please keep this information to yourselves."

If not, Fink warned, "we may have to discontinue this practice."

In other words, the police will only provide the public with information it's entitled to have on the condition that the public keeps it quiet.

Baltimore County police spokesman William Toohey told me the Towson Precinct would continue to distribute the information regardless of what the public does with it. He said the e-mail sent by Fink "does not represent the department's policy, position or practices."

Toohey, a veteran and respected public information official, understands that once information is made public, it is public, and trying to compartmentalize it or persuade others to keep it quiet tends to backfire. It certainly doesn't make crime go away.

My concern is that the sergeant's e-mail could have a chilling effect on residents who might be more afraid to talk after receiving such a blunt warning from a police officer.

You can decide for yourselves what "properly prepared for public information" means, but to me it means a sanitized news release limited to information the department chooses to tell you and how they choose to tell you about it.

Last year, Baltimore police hid information about a serial rapist in Mount Vernon, arguing that making it public would hurt efforts to make an arrest, even though outraged residents complained that cops had put public relations ahead of public safety. And in North Baltimore, a community group that got crime stats from the city police threatened to take legal action against a blogger who posted them on the Internet where people who didn't pay dues could see them, as if public information was a proprietary commodity.

People living in a neighborhood want to know when and where crime occurs, but they don't want outsiders to see their community as troubled. Many communities are reluctant to add my name to their listserves for that very reason.

The Baltimore Sun has tried for more than two years to get police departments to feed a crime map and provide regular updates, but thus far, only Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties have agreed. Other agencies balk, some noting the political pitfalls of allowing raw data to be scrutinized by the news media and the public.

The Metropolitan Police Department in Washington puts its raw numbers on its official Web site and allows residents to map their own crime, which has cut down on requests for information and puts the numbers out there for everybody to see.

Baltimore County's Weekly Crime Report contains a date, time, report number, offense type, location and a brief synopsis of various crimes, barely more than is contained in The Baltimore Sun's regular Police Blotter feature and nothing, despite Fink's argument, that could be considered investigatory and thus compromise a case.

What cops don't like is ceding control of how information is interpreted. It's better for them if they tell us they've arrested a suspect in six break-ins on York Road than for us to piece the attacks together using lists like the Weekly Crime Report and write an article before detectives have caught someone.

Back in the old days, when reporters actually visited police stations and precinct houses, they were able to thumb through daily tabulations of crime logs and reports and ferret out entertaining and newsworthy tales to offer their readers. Smaller staffs, less newsprint and the demand for instantaneous coverage have ended that kind of shoe-leather news-gathering.

But the same information that could be gleaned by standing in front of a grumpy desk sergeant can now be delivered easily and more efficiently online, such as the Towson Precinct's Weekly Crime Report, which is nothing more than an e-mail version of the old handwritten log.

The department could publish this report on its Web site and then work to solve and prevent crimes instead of worrying about the gossip mill and placating competing news outlets.

Apparently, the cops in Baltimore County got the message.

On June 29, I got an e-mail from Fink adding my name to his e-mail distribution list and informing members of the public that they "can continue to forward the information to everyone you always do."

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