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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Right to Know Week, Day 2: Opening up the police blotter

For no good reason, Canadian police departments are much more secretive than their American counterparts.

Posted By on Wed, Sep 28, 2011 at 3:49 PM

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I'm writing this blog post somewhat expecting to be called out as the ugly American immigrant. Perhaps I am, but I hope readers will at least hear me out before throwing the CFA insults my way.

Earlier this year, I started giving the Halifax police department some grief on Twitter for what struck me as their overly secretive manner. See, on a daily basis we journalists get a "Watch Commander's Report" from the PD, which typically reports nothing at all. Yesterday's Watch Commander's report, for example, reads in its entirety: "Halifax Regional Police responded to 192 calls for service during today's shift, there were no calls of note to report." Sometimes the report will list one or two "notable incidents"; today's report is as follows:

Good morning the Halifax Regional Police responded to 125 calls for service last night with the following call of note.

Robbery, West Division:
GO 11-148129

At 11:00 pm west members responded to a report of a robbery that had occurred 10 minutes prior in the area of Lacewood Drive and Glenforest Drive. The victim, a 19 year old Halifax man, walked home and contacted the police. He reported walking along Lacewood and Glenforest drive at approximately 10:50 pm when he was approached by 2 black males who punched him in the face and had stolen his cell phone. One of the males was holding a knife during the incident. The suspects were last observed fleeing westbound along Glenforest drive.

The suspects are described as 16-17 years old; one wore a dark hoodie with the hood up and wore a black backpack. The other male who held the knife wore a dark tank top and zip up sweater, dark pants, shaved head and a chubby build. The victim received a bloody nose during the incident. There are no suspects at this time.

SGT. Greg Robertson 0165
PATROL/3WATCH

The way that single incident is reported is fairly informative, and will likely lead to some news stories in tomorrow's dailies. I don't have a problem with it in the least (I'll save commentary about police reporting on race for another time, but for the record, I think this report is fine on that front.)

I do, however, have a big problem with the number of incident reports given to the press/public. See, in every American city-- from podunk Searcy, Arkansas, population 10,000 (my last job) to New York City, population one gazillion, the entire police blotter---with each and every police call---is made available. The equivalent here in Halifax would be that 192 police calls would have been detailed yesterday, and 125 today.

In the states, every cub reporter has to do a stint on the police blotter-- I’ve done this in several cities; on my way to work, I’d stop by the police department, and the blotter was usually at a desk off in a corner somewhere, usually next to a copy machine. I’d drop in a few dimes, copy the whole thing and take it to the office. At some papers, we just printed the whole thing; at others, we’d select a few of the more interesting ones and write short pieces on them.

Here are some examples of American newspapers' reporting on the police blotter:
---From a paper I used to work for in Oregon
---The Virginian Pilot has a neat search feature, which chronicles all the reports over seven cities with a population of over a million. Here’s a search of Norfolk, population around 300,000, listing 279 criminal incidents from last week (the paper, not the police department, filters out the other calls)
---And, my favourite poolice blotter reporting is from the surreal Arcata Eye, in California (if you want to waste an entire afternoon, page through the back reports)

So, imagine my surprise to find that here in Halifax, I can’t have access to the blotter. Not only that, but the watch commanders take it upon themselves to decide what will be of interest to reporters.

Why is this a problem? Well, consider last summer's swarmings on the Common. There were at least six of them reported to the police, but each day the Police Department would issue a Watch Commander's Report saying "there were no calls of note to report." People in the community continued to walk the streets around the Common without knowledge that day after day people walking the streets around the Common were getting attacked. Only when the last fellow learned---from hospital attendants, not the police---that there had been previous attacks and alerted the press to it, did the public learn of the threat. There's no doubt, though, that at least one person was horribly injured who probably would not have been, had he knowledge of the previous attacks; the police department's silence resulted quite literally in a person being hospitalized.

I don't know why the police department hadn't told the press about the swarmings. Maybe they honestly didn't thing the swarmings were a big deal---but if so, I'd argue they shouldn't have been in the position of deciding the relative worth of the swarmings in the first place. Maybe the cops thought news of the swarmings would reflect badly on the department---which doubles up the importance of the media watchdog role of the press.

After ridiculing the Watch Commander's Reports on Twitter for a few weeks, the police department's PR person, Theresa Rath, contacted me and basically said, "stop attacking us, you jerk." This was the beginning of a productive conversation.

Rath told me that chief Frank Beazley wants to get more information out, but their concern is the usual privacy stuff. I told her about the US situation, and said they seem to be able to get the information out without givng away names, etc. (Note they usually give block numbers, not exact addresses.) As she tells it, if the Halifax PD was to redact all the names, etc, they’d have to hire six people full time. I told her that’s ridiculous-- Searcy managed to do it just fine, and they didn’t have a single communications person. She said their software-- called Versadex, produced by a company called Versaterm--- doesn’t allow for it. I then called the police department in Chico, California, where I also used to work, and talked to the cop in charge of the police blotter I used to copy. He told me that he personally wrote the computer code the Chico PD uses to translates all the officers reports into the police blotter, redacting the personal information. This fellow was a cop, not a computer scientist, so I doubt the exercise is all that difficult. And, like I said, every police department in the states has a similar blotter---university police departments, bridge police forces, PDs in small cities, PDs in gigantic cities, state police departments, you name it.

From my conversations with Rath and with other reporters in Canada, I've learned that there's a police blotter divide between the US and Canada: Every US police department makes it completely public, and no Canadian police department makes it completely public. But there doesn't seem to be any legal or constitutional reason for the silence north of the border; it's simply the way things are done, or more precisely, not done. The police department falls back on computer programming excuses, not legal excuses, to explain away its silence, while just on the other side of the border those problems were solved decades ago.

But, there's good news: The Halifax PD appears to be making a good effort to increase its reporting of police activity to something approaching the US level. Talking with spokesperson Brian Palmater today, he tells me that they are testing a new mapping feature that would make the incidents available not just to reporters, but to the public generally.

If so, this will be a quantum leap in the the opening up of police departments in Canada. I'm willing to wait a bit longer, and work with the department a bit longer in good faith, to see this come to fruition. Stay tuned.

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