June 6, 2008

Crime happens every day. And as crime reporters, we often spend our time running from one heartwrenching crime scene to another, scanning arrest report after arrest report, churning out well-intended stories that state the news, but that too often ignore the bigger picture of what all this crime says about who we are as a society, what we value and what we are becoming.

Back-to-back sessions at the Investigative Reporters & Editors Conference in Miami on Thursday emphasized the importance of digging deeper: of asking the right questions about crime, the government agencies we pay to investigate crime, and those we expect to deal with criminals.

Here are a few tips and ideas I took away from three sessions on criminal justice reporting sponsored by Criminal Justice Journalists and two more hour-long talks that dealt with the topic of databases — how to get them and what to do with them. Through my crime-centric lens, the database-CJJ coupling was just the ointment I needed to help soothe my crime-scene-weary soul.

“So, Sheriff, you say crime’s down?”

Crime statistics don’t always mean what you think they mean. Take the time to understand how the data is collected, reported and presented. Read the law enforcement agency’s data collection guidelines. Talk to the agency’s data guru. Request raw data, but put those figures in perspective by reporting them in rates. (Who can forget the impact one statistic had earlier this year when it was released: “1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars.”) But when digging through those numbers, keep in mind what panelist Valerie Kalfrin of The Tampa Tribune learned and reported in 2006: The data you have is only as good as how it is reported. Some crimes might not ever make the list.

Kalfrin showed, for example, that the FBI and your local police agency may classify the same criminal act in very different ways. In Tampa, that meant that when a man shattered a bedroom window, climbed through, beat a woman and stole her jewelry, the Tampa police counted it as three crimes (burglary, theft and aggravated assault) but the FBI statistics counted only the most serious (aggravated assault). Get to know the differences, so you can share the big picture, the truer picture with readers.


Investigating on the cheap

Getting crime data doesn’t have to be expensive and it doesn’t always have to be a giant tug-of-war with your local PIO. Every day as reporters we access raw data that give us a sliver of the total picture. We thumb through the day’s jail log on our local sheriff’s office Web site, see the charges, the offense locations, etc. We know when someone has been killed and where. Start collecting that information in your own database — a searchable story tool for something down the line. Matt Doig of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Jack Gillum of the Arizona Daily Star also suggest requesting any databases you know your local law enforcement chief might be collecting on a regular basis: the monthly employee overtime report, monthly homicide report, etc. Find out what they’re paying attention to, and pay attention to it too.

Correctly reporting corrections

Jails and prison systems tend to get the most ink when something goes wrong: a jail suicide, a wheelchair dumped inmate, a prison riot. But the real story of corrections is an intensely human story that has tangible societal ramifications, says Mike Ward, reporter for the Austin American-Statesman. Along those lines, Adam Gelb, former crime reporter and current director of the Pew Center’s Public Safety Performance Project suggests reporters break down the 1 in 100 statistic to the local level.

What is the comparable jailed count in your state? For every person in prison, how many are in correctional supervision? What are the demographic layers to that data? Gelb also says reporters should explore who is behind bars in their states. What crimes are garnering the most jail time? How has that changed over time?

Secondly, keep in mind that building prisons is big business. Ward, who has covered prisons and criminal justice issues for nearly 30 years, points out a trickle-down effect he has observed in Texas: More money spent building prisons results in more need for staffing corrections officers. But corrections officers are low-paid, which contributes to a staff shortage. Which means less time spent searching staff for contraband. Which means, as Ward says in his Texas twang, “The guards are more susceptible to stuff.” Both Ward and Gelb suggest following the money (political contributions, expenses) in the push to build more prisons. Then, compare that with how public money is being spent on recidivism programs.


CSI is a myth, but what ya gonna do about it?

We all know that crimes aren’t solved in 45 minutes, like on TV. But Paul Wormeli, executive director of the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute, says reporters could do a better job of showing exactly why.

The fact, Wormeli says, is criminal history records are frequently incomplete. The Combined DNA Information System (CODIS) that stores DNA records on offenders nationally has a backlog of 500,000 cases. Information sharing between police agencies and states about criminal activity is spotty and incomplete. As Joe Mahr and Jaimi Dowdell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch showed in their recent story “Free to Flee,” those breakdowns in information reporting and sharing can help criminals remain under the radar for years, even decades.

Find out what crimes your agency does and doesn’t issue warrants for. Use the Post-Dispatch approach: Get your local fugitive database; match that with warrants served at home and elsewhere; search for those offenders and check other states and counties for additional offenses and warrants. There are lots of stories in those information gaps.


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Rebecca Catalanello works the late shift, covering crime and breaking news in the Tampa bureau of the St. Petersburg Times. A newspaper reporter since 1998,…
Rebecca Catalanello

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