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Home > Publications > Quill > Beat Guide: Cops and Courts


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Monday, May 1, 2006
Beat Guide: Cops and Courts

By Bruce Cadwallader

Those journalists who think they’ll never see the inside of a police station or courtroom are mistaken.

Anyone with more than five years of dust under their notebooks will tell you the legal system is everywhere. We’ve all been asked to cover a legal issue once or twice.

After 20 years of covering Ohio courts and cops, I regularly give advice to newbies in the newsroom, and I occasionally get asked for advice on dealing with the news media by the other side.

If I had to list a few do’s and dont’s for journalists, here’s where I’d start:

Don’t act like you know it all.

Unless you’ve spent the summer reading law books, you won’t impress the legal eagles. Ask a few questions about what you just saw or read and soak in the response. My editor’s favorite question is: Why?

Be nice to the clerks and bailiffs.

They are the gatekeepers to the information — and sometimes the judge — that you need. It’s been my experience they appreciate sincerity and brief encounters. Give them your contact numbers! Others want you to hang around all day. Same with desk sergeants and patrol supervisors. Some will want to run you in, others will invite you over for coffee. Take the time to get a photo of some of these people on the job as file art.

Be on time for hearings and news conferences.

I nearly missed my first murder trial when two bulky deputies blocked the door to the courtroom in my first week on the job because the judge insisted on locking the doors during the trial. Claiming I was a reporter with First Amendment protections didn’t budge the boys. I was allowed in and out only during breaks. Same for the scheduled news conference at the steps of city hall — don’t tempt fate by missing the prosecutor’s explanation of the facts. You may not get another chance until the trial.

Never burn a cop source.

It will affect generations of reporters who come after you. Learn from veteran defense attorneys.

Enjoy a little friendly convergence.

If you are associated with another print or broadcast outlet, feel free to share a little information with your colleagues. Two people can cover more ground than one, and each brings his or her own Rolodex of sources to the situation. Someone who has covered the beat for years will know all the hidden telephone numbers and back-door entrances to the information. One warning: Be sure you understand your need and his/her need for an occasional exclusive without you!

Learn the cop jargon of codes and shifts.

One bureau, such as homicide, may have one way of dealing with the news media while others rarely see you. Again, we’re not there to be their friends, but we should understand they have information that we want. They will need us occasionally, too. Learn the department’s regulations on dealing with the press, and go through a public information officer if you have to. Some departments require it. Those departments will test your effectiveness at source development.

Know your state’s current public records laws and learn where they keep the books.

Requesting information is so much easier when you know your rights and where the information is usually stored. Police records and court records are indefinitely kept by name and case number. Learn their system of codes (get a cheat sheet) and take the time to have someone explain their computer filing system. Then do searches yourself.

Never back down from a challenge to your ethics.

Have ethics and report fairly. If you make a mistake, correct it and learn from it. If they make a mistake, someone might die. Sometimes, you need to see an officer’s personnel file, but always ask for the compliment sheets along with the complaints. Get a copy of the labor contract and learn the levels of discipline. Who has the power to hire and fire an officer? Sometimes it’s not the chief. In court, be prepared to stand up and ask for a continuance and a media hearing if a judge wants to kick you out of a public hearing.

Know where the search warrants are kept.

Unsealed court documents are a boon to the journalist who will take the time to read them. Seek a judge’s permission to unseal a document after its shelf time has run, if possible. Hopefully, you’ll have a boss who isn’t afraid to call a lawyer once in awhile for advice. Sometimes, your employer will have to sue to get the information.

Have some fun.

It’s not always about murder and mayhem. There are livelier moments, there are genuine heroes, and there are criminal justice features that enlighten the public without turning their stomachs. Scan the civil cases daily for nuggets.


Bruce Cadwallader is a staff reporter for the Columbus Dispatch and the national secretary-treasurer for SPJ.

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