Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Pressing the Police

David Simon, of Homicide, The Wire, and long ago the Baltimore Sun, wrote about the increasing secrecy of the Baltimore police in Sunday's Washington Post: In Baltimore, No One Left to Press the Police. He was making a large point about the role of newspapers.
"In an American city, a police officer with the authority to take human life can now do so in the shadows, while his higher-ups can claim that this is necessary not to avoid public accountability, but to mitigate against a nonexistent wave of threats. And the last remaining daily newspaper in town no longer has the manpower, the expertise or the institutional memory to challenge any of it."
Simon argues that there aren't any bloggers fighting to keep the city government honest.  The laws provide access to many police records, but an individual is left with little practical recourse if the police don't obey them.  (They hassle photographers taking pictures on bridges, too.)  I'm sympathetic to Simon's argument, but the primary problem is public accountability not the lack of a newspaper to provide it.

It reminded me of my own experience getting access to campus police records in college.  (Neither the crimes, nor the institutions were as threatening as they are in Baltimore.)  The M.I.T. campus police refused to show reporters its police log, a simple record of incidents and arrests.  It took us a year or more of effort to get access to them.

What was involved in getting access to those records?  The Student Press Law Center provided resources for student journalists.  I knew the basic outlines of the law, that other papers had similar problems, and that many of them prevailed in the end.  The issues were clear cut at public universities, but Massachusetts law seemed fairly clear for police at private colleges.  We asked to see the records several times--just walked into the police station and asked to see it.  We also did this a few times with the local Cambridge police, who never gave us a hard time.

I also had the help of a lawyer, a former editor-in-chief of The Tech, who helped us negotiate with the Institute.  I recall a letter he wrote to Thomas Henneberry, M.I.T.'s lawyer, requesting access to the police log: "We believe that this is an appropriate matter for injunctive relief and hope seeking such relief does not become necessary."  I delivered the letter in person to various administrators--the president, the chairman of the corporation, etc.

I certainly had instiutional support from my fellow students at the newspaper.  I think it's easier to feel confident in pressing the case when you have an organization behind you, but it's hard to quantify the effect.

Henneberry wrote a letter back to us, explaining that everything we argued was nonsense.  I don't recall exactly how we responded, but several months later the police log was opened.  We did not get any official response, but the log was available to reporters.  The police log is still published reguarly.

What's the lesson for bloggers in this?  You probably need an umbrella organization to help coordinate a campaign for open records and a lawyer willing to help you in specific cases.  You need to make a sustained effort to get access to records.  The first few times you show up, you'll simply be turned away.  It's not inconceivable that bloggers could achieve as much as the local paper in this regard.


Anonymous said...

Nice pie in the sky solution.

An umbrella organization? Paid for by what? THERE IS NO MONEY IN CITIZEN BLOGGING. What blogger is going to spend a year fighting for arrest logs, spending his own time, effort and MONEY to sue for them? Where is the practical incentive to do this systematically, across all of the traditional beats that newspapers once covered?

Newspapers were flawed but they had a financial stake in pursuing news. When it was costly -- sending someone to Fallujah or Rome or Johannesburg for a year -- they did it and covered the expenses.

When public officials tried to withhold information, they sent more reporters to surround the story.

WHERE IS ANYTHING LIKE THIS HAPPENING TO REPLACE NEWSPAPERS. The internet is a powerful tool, but that is all that it is. Suggesting that it can replace journalism is a fart in high wind. It is commentary, not reporting, much like your goofy comments bear no resemblance to the solving of actual problems in an actual world.

Steve said...

It's obviously hard for Anonymous to get his or her head around the concept that people might actually invest time, effort and money into something because it's socially worthwhile.

He or she has obviously not made serious contact with the open source movement, where the next generation of network infrastructure and applications is essentially being built on that basis.

I'd have thought that the Republican party would have been all over this one: clearly if you want to reduce the size of government you have to make things like this a citizen responsibility.

Sorry, what's that? We can pay contractors to fight illegal wars, and we can pay our intelligence organization tp spy on our citizens, but we won't fund citizens to safeguard our democratic rights?

Sounds to me like a revolution might be required. Let's hope it's a peaceful one.