By Frank Lewis
December 13, 2013
PDT Staff Writer
Every time someone in my job sits down to write a column critical of protocols and processes by individual agencies, we have to weigh the consequences. News reporters know that when we do expose these systems, we will most likely be cut off from information in the future. It’s the old “kill the messenger” syndrome. But here it goes.
We live in an age in which social media rules the information circuit, which means someone somewhere witnessed something happening, and they usually know just enough to start the ball rolling as to getting that story out to the general public. That is where we, in the newspaper industry, come in.
In recent months a phenomenon has occurred. There is no access to information surrounding incidents that occur such as crashes and arrests. That phenomenon is that there is no record of the incident except in the cruiser of the actual officer responding to the scene, or in his or her paperwork if they use a paper system.
Someone will call and tell us that a crash has occurred near their home and that someone was flown from the scene. A call to the agency in years past gave us the names of those involved and a description of what happened. Now, within the last several months, we are being told the only record is only on the individual computer of the vehicle operated by the investigating trooper, or in his or her paperwork which is not filed at the office, but instead is taken home by the officer, and that unless we can talk to that officer when he or she comes to work there is no way to get the information.
This occurred again Thursday morning, and I know I appeared facetious when I asked if there isn’t a record on a central computer at the headquarters, but I was serious. I was told there is no central record from accident scenes until the trooper comes in for his next shift, which may be the next day.
What amazes me is that I used to be able to call anytime and find out what happened. That has apparently changed. And, it appears to us, it is a step backwards that the information is only available from one person when that one person is working. It turns out that is true. It is not the fault of the person who answers the phone. It is a relatively new protocol instituted by someone above them.
In fairness, there are several agencies with that issue, so it isn’t just one. If you call you are told the officer took the report home with him. You ask, “Do you mean if, heaven forbid, something were to happen to him, you would have no record of the incident?” You are told that is just the way it is. No record is kept at the headquarters.
We admire the work of the various law enforcement agencies. These people work hard every day and do a great job, and I know this will most likely cut me off from future information; but as I said at the outset, I had to weigh the decision to write it and understand the consequences. I readily accept them. I also want them to know I will continue to help them promote things they are involved in such as their community involvement. Several law enforcement agencies distribute gifts to underprivileged children, and I look forward to writing those stories every year at this time, and I intend to do that again.That will never stop because, again, people have a right to know these people put it on the line every day for our safety and protection. I have also had some great relationships which I hope will continue. We will, several times a year, receive a request from a law enforcement agency asking us to publish a photo of a bank robber, or asking us to enlist help from the public to locate someone they are looking for.
We have always worked with these agencies because it is a two-way information street, and we know that.
Now, let’s talk about some of the agencies who understand that nearly everything that occurs is an official record, thus it is for public consumption. The Scioto County Sheriff’s Office and the Portsmouth Police Department, both understand the public has a right to that information. I never have a problem getting the information we need to get the true story out there instead of the untruths created by people on social media. I believe we actually provide a service for that reason. Federal agencies and statewide agencies also understand “Freedom of Information” laws.
For example, I deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office on a regular basis, and never have a problem getting information. I deal with the FBI, and they have a protocol which takes into consideration the deadlines we work under, and the cooperation is there. I can call the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, and receive the information on a timely basis. So this appears to be a local issue.
What we in the newspaper business need is a protocol which allows for a flow of information to and from law enforcement agencies in a timely manner any hour of the day or night. The reason is, we no longer just write for tomorrow’s newspaper, but we put our stories online immediately. Information should flow from cruiser computers to a central computer at the headquarters, so that the information is available, allowing us to inform the public.
Having said all of that, let me say this — we, in no way, want to interfere with the jobs these people do every day. We understand it is a courtesy that they take the time to give us something by phone when they are helping direct people by radio, and keep the public protected, and we never want to be a bother to these people. But it was never a problem in the past, and only now seems to have turned into an issue, and no one has been able to tell us why.
Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 252, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. For breaking news, follow Frank on Twitter @FrankLewisPDT.