When Cops Are The Story


On May 22, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel featured a 3,500-word investigation of an apparent pattern of crime misreporting by that city's police department.

Police reaction to the story by Ben Poston, a respected data expert on the paper's investigative team, has bolstered Milwaukee's emerging status as the Rubicon of police-press relations in the social media age. Weeks before, the police had taken an audacious step by creating its own news service, “The Source.”

The police chief and the paper are now slugging it out publicly over Poston's story, much like competing newspapers or politicians might.

Poston's reporting found that more than 500 violent incidents from 2009 to 2011 had been incorrectly categorized as minor assaults. The errors might mean that the city had a slight increase in violent crime in 2011, instead of the 2.3 percent decline touted by Police Chief Edward Flynn in February.

The story struck a chord in Milwaukee, with nearly 300 comments at the Journal Sentinel's news website, JSonline.com, 900 mentions on Facebook and 200 on Twitter.

Poston did not overtly call the misreporting malicious, although his story included damning quotations—near the top of the article—from two sources.

Michael Maltz, a criminologist at Ohio State University, called it “cheating the public” and suggested the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) might have been “playing fast and loose”with the numbers.

Sam Walker, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, said the pattern of errors “clearly indicates a systemic problem in the department” and charged, “There has to be a failure of leadership.”

That leader was Chief Flynn, and he was not pleased.

Age of Twitter

A year ago, Milwaukee was cited by The Crime Report in a case study for a roundtable conference on “Public Safety and Crimefighting in the Age of Twitter” as one of several large cities where police were increasingly assertive in their use of social media, such as Twitter and Facebook.

Milwaukee police occasionally used its new voice to tweak the media—or even to hector journalists. One example: the peculiar May 2, 2011, Facebook post suggesting that the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was a “great teachable moment for media…on why law enforcement doesn’t always share what we know when we know it.”

On May 2 this year, three weeks before the Journal Sentinel crime stats story was published, Flynn and his staff formalized their standing as crime-journalism police by launching MilwaukeePoliceNews.com, nicknamed “The Source” by the police department.

Its mission statement reads, “We created The Source to give you the genuine, unfiltered information from us—from the latest crime stats to a hard hitting story about an officer's work that you won't see anywhere else. We'll correct the news stories that got it wrong, and we'll highlight the ones that got it right. Most importantly, we'll create our own content so you can see what the Milwaukee Police Department is really accomplishing in the community.”

Old-school journalists are not happy about it. But as the tough-talking Chief Flynn put it, “Welcome to the 21st Century.”

Leonard Levitt, a New York crime journalist known for his antagonistic relationship with the New York Police Department, says the MPD is part of a broader trend of police agencies “emboldened” by what they see as a weakened media. They smell blood.

“There's got to be a basic respect for what the media is supposed to do, and that doesn't exist,” said Levitt. “(Police) have absolutely no regard for what the media is there for. The media is supposed to be a check on police abuses.”

Hour-long Interview

The MPD posted on its new website a video recording of the fairly cordial hour-long interview Flynn and several subordinates had with Poston and his editor, Greg Borowski.

But a provocative tease by The Source said, “Mr. Poston came not with sincere questions to be answered, but with a premise to be proven: the Milwaukee Police Department is lying about its crime numbers.”

At a press conference, the chief admitted “fairly consistent coding errors” in categorizing the assaults. In other words, he agreed with the story.

Flynn said he asked for audits by both his department and the FBI. Yet Flynn, a veteran police executive who also has worked in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Virginia, seethed during the 18-minute press conference, also linked at The Source.

“I categorically reject any notion that the cops don't count,” Flynn began. He called aspects of Poston's reporting “disingenuous bordering on cynical,” and he said a number of people in Milwaukee were “playing political reindeer games” with crime figures.

The Source added this histrionic aside: “We are also suggesting that the worst kind of exploitative journalism would be that which uses children to persuade the public to draw false conclusions.”

This was a reference to an anecdotal example low in the story about one misreported assault, of a toddler by his mother's boyfriend.

The Journal Sentinel responded with an editorial: “Building the walls higher around (Flynn's) police bunker and lobbing grenades over it won’t help the public.”

Michael Juley, police and courts editor at the Journal Sentinel, said in an email that his paper has held three meetings with Milwaukee police in the past two years to try to hash out a better working relationship. He said a fourth meeting was being sought.

Juley said, “The department ended its decades-long practice of holding workweek daily news briefs and started its own news website to disseminate crime information. This effectively has shut us out of talking to a live person face to face. So I would say relations with the department, while not at an all-time low, are not great.”

His paper is not alone.

No Special Access

Nearly 2,000 U.S. police agencies now use Facebook, embraced as a direct-to-citizens link, after decades of complaining about the traditional media's filter. By longstanding tradition, police departments have given crime beat reporters special access and fast-track information—a courtesy call when a newsworthy crime occurred, for example.

That is changing: many reporters now resort to monitoring a department's Facebook and Twitter feed for news tips.

Lauri Stevens, who consults police agencies about social media through her Boston-based firm LAwS Communications, says some journalists are intimidated by the changing police-media landscape.

In some cases, she said in an email to The Crime Report, “the media feel threatened that perhaps they will become less relevant.”

She added: “For any media outlet to express displeasure at police departments generating and distributing 'news' only illustrates their own naïvete and lack of understanding of what is happening in the world we live in.”

Deputy Chief Randall Blankenbaker of the Dallas Police Department, regarded as a trendsetter in use of social media, says he is watching the Milwaukee police news-source initiative with interest.

“I don't know that we're in a position or have a desire to do something like this at this time,” he says.

According to Blakenbaker, the police and the media have “different business models that create some of the issues and differences between us.” The media, he added, want to be fast and first while police try to be “as accurate and concise as possible.”

Blankenbaker continues: “I do think that what Milwaukee is doing is indicative of the way things are changing in the country and in the world with the proliferation of social media. Everybody wants to be able to tell their own story.”

But who verifies those stories?

The 'Right to Spin'

Pat Gauen, an editor with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who has spent most of his 42-year career on criminal justice beats, says every police agency has a right to “spin its message and put it out there.”

“But I think it's our obligation to keep doing what we do and make sure the public sees the peril of getting only a particular point of view from the police,” Gauen says.

While the Post-Dispatch has a reputation for tough coverage of police, Gauen says he would rue the incommunicative police-reporter relationships found in some cities.

“A cop can give us a lot of guidance and behind-the-scenes input on a story that he can't necessarily tell the public,” he says. “So they do have influence in what appears in the paper. If they stop talking to us, they give up some of that, and that's not good for them, either.”

Leonard Levitt, the New York City reporter, embodies that relationship.

Since 1994, Levitt has written an inside-information column about the New York Police Department (now published at NYPDConfidential.com). He has become an infamous gadfly, uncovering stories that the NYPD would rather conceal. He is persona non grata at One Police Plaza and brags that the police public information office has refused to answer his questions for 10 years running.

Yet he manages to break stories by going around official channels through a network of sources inside the police department.

“What the police are trying in Milwaukee and other cities is really frightening, but it won't work in the long run,” Levitt says. “People inside are going to talk. They can't control the flow of information.”

David J. Krajicek is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. A true crime author, he is a former police bureau chief of the New York Daily News and police reporter for the Council Bluffs (Iowa) Nonpareil and the Omaha World-Herald. He welcomes comments from readers.

Comments are closed.