This week I got a call from Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald Editor Matt Lindberg. Staff writer Jenny Gray was working on a story that brings home events we are all seeing on CNN these days.
She’s heard from a man who said local police stopped him for no reason. They were aggressive, he said. They searched him, drew their weapons, and before they let him go, he said they told him if he had a complaint he could take it to the police commissioner. Then he alleges that one of the officers made a vague reference to Ferguson, Mo. The city on everyone’s lips was mentioned again, the man’s family says, when his mother went to the police station to complain.
Matt wanted to make sure he handled the story with due care. He didn’t want to bury it, but neither did he want to inflame tensions or wrongly cast aspersions on a particular cop or department based on an unverified complaint.
Here’s my advice, to him and to you: Take a breath.
It’s easy to get swept up in the contagion of such charges. Matt and Jenny did not. Instead they wrote a draft of the story and sent it to me and then we talked it over. Matt convinced me that it was an important story for the next day’s paper, even though the allegations hadn’t been proven. It wasn’t the first such complaint. And, importantly, the police chief acknowledged there was a confrontation and said she had initiated an investigation. To me, that gives the allegations some credence, and the fact that there is an investigation could be newsworthy in and of itself. …
It’s not necessary to talk to me (though I’m always a phone call away), but I would widen the discussion circle before going to print with unsubstantiated allegations of police abuse. Talk it over in the newsroom. Share what you know with the publisher. Most importantly, seek substantiation. Call the law enforcement agency. If you’ve worked on a relationship with the chief beforehand you might get her to tell you off the record whether there is reasonable cause for concern or whether this one looks like nothing.
Make no mistake: These are troubled times with respect to our relationship with police. Most of us would agree that most police behave bravely and with great respect for the people they serve. However, sometimes they don’t meet that benchmark. One of the most important roles for a community press is to act as a check on unchecked power. We gain credibility by holding police agencies in high regard but also to the highest standards.
Sometimes it’s helpful to seek context out of your town. Call a criminologist at the local university or a retired police chief or a spokesman for a national police organization. Call human rights experts or the ACLU. Run through the scenario in the abstract. Matt might ask an outside expert whether there is any context whatsoever that would make a police officer’s reference to Ferguson a good idea in today’s climate.
There is a lot of talk in police circles about de-escalation – slowing things down so that irreversible mistakes aren’t made in a heartbeat. That’s what happened in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., and everyone involved regretted the pace of police decisions made on those fateful days. I think that concept is handy when reporting on these things as well. You’ll be tempted to report at Twitter speed. But these stories call for a more deliberate approach.