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Viewpoints
Thomas Michalski
Police and press don’t always get along
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Journalism was different decades ago when I covered crime beats in New York and New Jersey.

Reporters and cops always maintained a guarded rapport. Officers often barred journalists from entering their secret world, but if you were among the privileged few to be accepted into their ranks as one to be trusted than you received tips about arrests or ongoing investigations.

Back in the 1960s when I launched my career in the news business police precincts had rooms set aside for the press. We were allowed to read crime reports from which stories were gleaned. We were invited to go along on drug raids, to sit in on interrogations, and even interview suspects in jails and precinct holding cells. Often reporters rode to crime scenes in patrol cars.

In exchange the police expected a fair shake. Journalists who went out of their way to assail law enforcement received very little sanctioned cooperation. One colleague who decided to expose all the real or imagined gossip about police and politics lasted two months before being reassigned to the lawn and garden beat.

Through cop friends I connected with entertainment and political figures. I was introduced to unsavory characters, murderers and gangsters. Once I shared dinner with a New Jersey police captain and his friend who just happened to be a shylock enforcer who broke legs and arms for a living. When the bill arrived I found myself short a few dollars. The bone crusher offered to make up the difference. I refused in fear of having an ear severed or my knees smashed for the five bucks I was short. (I used a credit card to cover the tab.)

Today’s relationships between cops and the media is more guarded than ever before. Once a deputy sheriff went ballistic because I leaned over a yellow crime scene tape to take a picture. “Get away from there,” he yelled.

Another time a female officer insisted that I leave the location of an incident where a police K-9 dog made a happy meal out of his handler’s groin.

Florida reporters are not allowed the freedom of their peers in northern metropolitan areas. Official press credentials are virtually unknown in the Sunshine State, whereas press cards and auto visors are issued by law enforcement agencies in New York City and New Jersey. Some states even issue distinctive license plates to working members of the media.

Walking into a police station to peruse police reports is now taboo. To speak with a cop within the confines of a stationhouse requires an escort to the appropriate office and another escort to leave the building.

A small number of officers really do take themselves way too serious. Some possess a “them against us” attitude, believing that they really are new centurions and we civilians are mere mortals. Once while being ushered down the hall of a local stationhouse I asked my policewoman-escort what would happen if I suddenly ran down the hall and into an office.

She didn’t think that was very funny.

None of this is to say that cops are not sympathetic about the job of the press. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office boasts the finest press relations division of all local agencies. A few police departments are not as friendly, for whatever their reasons. A spokesman with an attitude once boorishly accused me of peeking through a window where a murder had taken place.

Police routinely decline to comment on breaking stories. They often withhold information and even the names of suspects and victims. And they become irritated when reporters circumvent their bureaucracy to independently contact neighbors and others to gather information for stories.

I think cops are inhibited because of the bad press they occasionally receive. Then there are court decisions that have forced changes in law enforcement procedures. Now most media requests go through a public information officer or division. That is partially because some investigations, such as bank robberies, are investigated by multiple agencies.

Information is withheld during ongoing inquiries in cases of sex crimes or juvenile incidents, and even to protect the rights of certain “persons of interests,” as suspects now are labeled.

You can’t blame the police for protecting themselves from possible retribution during trials, or civil suits launched by lawyers whose imprudent billboard and television advertisements have become so common.

The police and press mostly do work in sync, and continue to shuck baggage from an era when some journalists saw cops as brutal, evasive and cynical. Too, reporters often are viewed as self-appointed experts who know little about police procedures and the inherent dangers. Misbehavior on both sides is not uncommon.

As Police Chief magazine in its May 2014 story on police/press relations said, “Working with the media is not complicated. Collaborating positively is a lot more rewarding than fighting with each other. Police leaders and reporters have a lot to offer each other. Each can help the other succeed. Together, they can really achieve that rarest of scenarios: a win-win situation. But best of all, the taxpayers benefit, from learning about the threats to public safety and what their law enforcement officers are doing about those threats. The ensuing free flow of information benefits all involved.”

Thomas Michalski is a retired Tampa Bay Newspapers editor. He can be reached at thomasamski@yahoo.com.
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