Communications in Law Enforcement and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing

DC Public Safety Radio

See the main site at http://media.csosa.gov

See the radio program at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2015/05/law-enforcement-and-justice-communications-presidents-task-force-on-policing/

Leonard: From the nation’s capital this is D.C. public safety. I am your host Leonard Sipes. Communications in law enforcement and the president’s task force on 21st century policing is our topic today. I want to make it clear from the very beginning that the discussion applies to all of us within the criminal justice system. To discuss the issues I’ve asked two experts on criminal justice and communication to join us today. One is Deborah Winger, she is the director of undergraduate journalism, associate professor of the Meek School of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. She is at www.advancethestory.com. We also have Ted Guest, he is the Washington Bureau Chief of the crime report, www.thecrimereport.org. To Deb, and to Ted welcome to D.C. public safety.

Ted: Thank you.

Deborah : Thank you.

Leonard: All right, the president’s task force on 21st century policing, I’ve read this several times. I’ve had one of the two co-chairs Laurie Robinson, who used to be a deputy attorney general at the U.S. of Department of Justice on the program previously. I’ll put the connection to the prior program in the show notes, in essence, I’m reading the report as dealing with communications, a fundamental pillar. They indeed did call their particular sections that they wanted to draw attention to pillars. I am going to read just a couple. Building trust and legitimacy, guardian mindset rather than a warrior mindset, culture of transparency and accountability, dealing with social media and a focus on community policing. All of these suggest to me a different way of communicating between law enforcement and the community and the criminal justice system in the community. So that’s my understanding of the president’s task force of the 21st century policing, that the big focus is on communications.

So I wanted to ask you a series of questions about that. They are talking about issues; creating a positive interaction with the police? My question is, with the focus on social media and the focus on communications do we in the criminal justice system and to those of us in law enforcement, are we really equipped to have a sophisticated conversation with the public as to policing or other aspects of the criminal justice system. Ted did you want to go first?

Ted: Yeah, I would say we don’t have such a sophisticated system. By the way, I don’t think the criminal justice system is much worse than any other government agency or any other entity in the United States, some specialize in this so I don’t want to be seen as saying the criminal justice system is the worst. One thing we should keep in mind in this conversation, the criminal justice system in this country is very diverse, it has various elements, the basic ones, the police, the courts, corrections agencies. We should keep in mind there is something like 18,000 police department in this country.

Leonard: Yes.

Ted: There is not a central authority. So when, we are going to have to make generalizations in this broadcast. We should all keep in mind, most of our listeners will know this there is no central authority telling people to do. This task force I thought had a lot of good ideas but it’s basically an advisory body of a bunch of experts but no one has the authority to implement this on a national scale, an individual police department or part of the justice system could agree or disagree with any of the recommendations, I think the recommendations are basically good. To answer your question, I don’t think on a broad scale I don’t think we are really equipped right now to implement them.

Leonard: Deborah, did you want to tackle that question?

Deborah : Yes, I want to follow up on something that Ted said about entities in general. Whether it’s a governmental agency, a law enforcement agency, a brand, a news organization, we are witnessing a major paradigm shift in the way communication happens in general. The rise of audience power, for law enforcement agency the audience is anyone you’re serving or protecting, right? Their ability to communicate with you and to engage with you if you do practice social media has never been greater. It’s really changed the dynamic of the relationship for communicator’s. We used to be able to simply broadcast to simply publish, and have very little knowledge about how we were being perceived or whether the information was understood. When you use these new technologies effectively you should be able to communicate in real time with real people. Most of us do not have the infrastructure to make that happen. Even news organizations that this is their reason for being, right, to communicate information. They are not always doing as good of job as they should at engaging and interacting with the audience.

Leonard: The processes of communicating is changing rapidly. It’s changing rapidly, for mainstream media, its changing rapidly for organizations that are trying to communicate. In the middle of all of this whirlwind of change, new technologies, new apps, new social media platforms, podcasting is going through a resurgence. How are we going to expect law enforcement agencies, Ted said it, 18,000 individual law enforcement agencies around the country. There’s certain police department, like the Washington D.C. police department, the New York police department, they do an extraordinary job of communicating with the public but most law enforcement agencies and I think most of us within the criminal justice system do not know how to communicate. When the president task force in 21st century policing comes along and since communicates a huge part of our ability to do a better job to serve the public. I’m sitting there whoops there’s a disconnect here.

Ted: It depends when we are talking about communications we are talking about a wide range of things. Some of the communications are coming from the police department or law enforcement authority to the community. Let’s say alerting people to some kind of emergency, I think on that level we are certainly doing a better job then we are used to. Of course, a lot of people in the public may not have the technology either may not own it or may not have it available and may not be hearing the message. That is just one very elemental level of communication. Let’s remember why we are having this discussion about the 21st century policing task force.

Why did this happen? It happened essential there was a big episode that most of our, all of our listeners should know about. Last summer in Ferguson, Missouri in which the shooting of an unarmed black man got a huge amount of publicity and generated a huge amount of controversy. A lot of the controversy, I think as far as communications was concerned had to do with the police departments not talking about it when it first happened. Again, that kind of thing I am not sure the 21st century policing task force really make a firm recommendation on. That’s the kind of thing that I would like to see among many other things. When should a police department, or law enforcement agency be talking about an incident that is controversial. Again there are many different kinds of communications. Not to forget the obvious, just basic communication about crime in your community.

One thing that has changed a lot in recent years, is much better communications to people there used to be a police blotter that used to be published, and still it’s published in a lot of newspapers but now we have the available via social media so just again that is a very basic thing when did the crime occur in the community just so you know that information. In this conversation we should take into account there are many different levels of communication, many different kinds of incidents we should be discussing its just not one central thing, communicating everything.

Leonard: That’s my point. My point, Deborah in all of this is that the average police commander in the average police department in this country reading the president task force on 21st century policing with its emphasize on social media, with its emphasize on communication, with its emphasize on building trust, with its emphasize on building legitimacy, he or she is sitting there going “Oh my heavens, what in the name of heavens am I supposed to do with this information, what communication platform should I engage in, what builds legitimacy, what builds trust”. I think it is very confusing to them unless someone comes out and provides some sort of firm guidance in terms of what we means in terms by communications it’s all going to go by the waist side. Some have suggested that to me. Do you have the sense Deb?

Deborah : Well one of the things to follow what Ted was saying with Ferguson is I would say that any police or law enforcement organization needs to understand a couple of things the control of information, we no longer control as much information as we had in the past. To think that we don’t say anything about the incident, that someone else is not going to say anything about the incident if anybody still believes that they should quickly disabuse themselves of that perception. I would say that any organization that is going to be involved in communication information to the public that every organization needs to have a crisis communication plan. They need to be prepared for information about an incident involving law enforcement to not go there way and to know how to respond to that and to be prepared to monitor twitter, to see what topic’s are trending relating to this issue. To be able to quickly leverage the trust that they’ve built prior to the crisis occurring to have people who are going to already be followers re-tweeting the correct information if wrong information is getting out there.

Go ahead.

Leonard: No please.

Deborah : I was just going to say all of this needs to happen on the front end before the first crisis occurs, you cannot try to tackle this when there’s an incident.

Leonard: Law enforcement is no different than the average organization. They all believe it is not going to happen to them. I am not quite sure that Ferguson the day before the incident  ever dreamed that they would be up against national and international media and be up against hundreds of thousands if not millions of social media messages. That takes organization, that takes pre planning, that takes an offal lot of preparation to handle something like that. The average police department is not going to deal with that, heck the average company is not going to deal with that. My guess is that there is a reluctance to invest that level of time and trouble and energy into something most people feel they are not going to face until it actually happens.

Deborah : I think you are correct. I think you could look at it as this incredibly time intensive, resource intensive effort. I think if that had … again we weren’t there, in the middle of it with the law enforcement officials, I think you are probably right that they never did have a discussion about how are we going to handle the communication around any type of crisis. I think that is where it has to start. You at least have to, you might throw the plan out but you have to dedicate some time to at least discussing on a very fundamental basic level. Who are we going to pull in to manage the twitter account or the Facebook account looking at the report we that we referencing today. It looked like a majority of law enforcement have either a Facebook or a twitter account. We know we can narrow it to that, but who is going to be there monitoring what is being said and responding with accurate information in a professional manner, again leveraging the trust that you hopefully have built through your efforts in social media prior to this event occurring.

Leonard: That’s my fear. Ted go ahead.

Ted: One thing, going back to my 18,000 police departments statement, we should keep in mind here some of our listeners may not know this, most of these police departments are very small. I think Ferguson actually was one of the bigger ones which may surprise people, like fifty officers. Sometimes we think of New York City which has 32,000 officers but they are way on the extreme. Many departments in this country I think as many as a third or more have ten or fewer officers. These people no matter how well meaning they are really don’t have the time and expertise to develop these kinds of policies which is one reason why possibly this policing task force is good because it will help focus people’s attention on some of these issues. Even focused people’s attention on them, you have to think of these small police departments of 10 people are they going to have this has high as high on their agenda. They probably have it higher on their agenda now then they did a couple years ago, we should keep that in mind.

Leonard: Let’s go back, I do want to refocus away a little bit from crisis communications to day to day communications. They are talking about creating a positive interaction with law enforcement, levels of trust, diversity, recruitment, a regular forum, recognizing the voices of youth, interactive distance learning, public engagement all of this signals a digital platform of communicating. Before the show I said, either an individual police officer can go to a community meeting and discuss their plans with thirty people or you can have individual police officers taught how to better interact that they encounter within the community or you can go to a digital strategy and talk to thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands at the same time. So it seems to me that clearly that a digital straggly would and a social media strategy that the report calls for would be a productive way to interact with citizens as long as citizens had a way of answering and responding the polls, so police officers or anybody in the criminal justice system can learn from the interaction. It seems to me a digital strategy is vital.

Deborah : I agree.

Ted: It certainly is. Again to go back to what I said before and I am pretty sure that Deb will agree with you have to know what the message is, what are you trying to get across. We could have all of the techniques in hand which a lot of departments do and a lot don’t. We don’t have time on this show to go into all the controversies about policing but there’s a big dispute right now going on around the country about what should police be doing about minor offensives. You know, there’s one argument is they should be very aggressive about dealing with every kind of minor offense because the person involved could end up in major offensives. Then there’s another group of people who say no we should emphasizing violent crime, serious crime, police shouldn’t be dealing with people smoking pot on the street. That kind of thing.

Well a police department has to have its own policy, I am just using that as an example, decided so it can communicate that kind of thing to the public. We assume police want to communicate more than what I described earlier as the police blotter there was a burglary  yesterday on Pennsylvania Avenue, that’s one thing to communicate but do communicate policy issues you got to have the message straight as well as the actually technique of doing it.

Leonard: Ladies and gentleman, I want to reintroduce our guest Deborah Winger. She is the director of Undergraduate journalism, associate professor of the Meek School of Journalism at the University of Mississippi. She has her own site advancethestory.com, which I find fascinating and I’ve gone to several times since I’ve done the last radio show. We have Ted Guest, he is the Washington Bureau Chief of the crime report, thecrimereport.org, to be unquestionably best daily summation of crime news throughout the country.

Let me swing it back, because if we got a discussion what police should do we would be here for the rest of the show. Ted is right, I’ve read a variety of reports, a variety of newspaper articles through Ted’s service I should say thecrimereport.org and there is massive disagreement all throughout the United States in terms of what we want to do operationally in terms of law enforcement. If we don’t have a core message, if we don’t have a core national understanding as to what it is we want to do within law enforcement what in the name of heavens are we going to be communicating to citizens.

Deborah : I think that is exactly what any agency regardless of size needs to figure out. What is the purpose of our social media account and to be realistic about the resources. I think a mistake a lot of organizations have made is to try to put all the social media control in to one person’s hands and you know you certainly understand the rational behind that is because you want a controlled message. If it’s only in one person’s hands and there on vacation you are out of luck. You know the social media works best when you have lots of people in your organization allowed to post to social media that there’s a clear understanding throughout the organization of what is the type of content that we are going to share and how are we going to interact and again that takes training, that takes time. If the end result is better policing, a safer community then it certainly seems worth it. The very beginning you have to decide what resources do we have that we can put towards this effort and what is our goal. Is our goal to reach youth? Well then we are going to have a very different strategy then if our goal is to communicate crisis.

For me part of it again having that first conversation and making sure everyone in your organization law enforcement or otherwise understands what you are trying to do with your social media account.

Leonard: That’s part of the divergence and complexity of social media, with every audience you may have different strategy. There are some people out there that use Instagram as an example to communicate with younger audiences, and a possibility of using Facebook to deal with older audiences. Yet [inaudible 00:20:38] can out with a report that basically said, “No, the young folks are still on Facebook and there hasn’t been a huge shift to Instagram”.

Deb, you may know this because we are part of the social media community and Ted is part of this discussion but how is the average chief of police in the average city going to figure this out. A new form of communicating with the larger community if it’s indeed podcast or television shows or Instagram or Facebook or Twitter, where does he or she go to for guidance to learn all this stuff, to implement it in a meaningful way in the community and figuring out what measurement tools are available so he or she can get the feedback they are looking for from the larger community. That is an unbelievable difficult task for the average law enforcement agency or anybody within the criminal justice system.

Deborah : I think I would say two things right off the top of my head. One is don’t get attracted to the shiny. Just because Meercat and Periscope are available for live streaming for Twitter doesn’t mean you have to jump on it. I mean, yes experiment with tools and somebody in your organization should be that perons who is geeked out by communication technology and it’s always experimenting. I would actually consider trying to hopefully you have a relationship with local media and leveraging their knowledge about the community and the social midday tools that are used most commonly in the community. Meeting with the webmaster or the digital producer of the local television station or someone in the newspaper and say, “How are you reaching audiences?”. I mean learn from what other people are doing versus reinventing the wheel. Especially if you don’t have the resources to send your PIO to training or you know you don’t have a staff of people in your communication office. I would say try to learn what other are already successful in these platforms what they are doing well. You know try to translate that to what you are trying to accomplish as law enforcement agency.

Leonard: Ted, can the average chief of police go to the average newspaper and television station and say “Help me engage in social media platform”.

Ted: Yeah they can certainly go, I mean I think every news media organization in this country wants to have relationships with the police departments. They might not always be pleasant and positive relations but a lot of are. We deal with police departments daily. I am talking about the news media in general. I am sure that news directors and editors would talk to that doesn’t necessary have to be the police chief but as least the department have a public information officer or as Deb said someone designated to be the social media person.

Also again we have been talking about talking to the community a lot of the bigger police departments do periodic surveys of the police department. Whether it’s an informal thing or some kind of an actual survey, not only what you think about our policy on this or that but they could include in that how do you get information, which social media do you use, is their any information you think you should be getting you are not getting. Again I realize we are talking about we are talking about a small place department is not going to be able to do what huge [inaudible 00:24:23] type survey but I think police department should be able to do that in some way. Actually as social media makes it easier when we are talking about e-mail when we are talking about doing a survey. Again not that you would necessarily be guided by everything the public said but at least it would give you a better idea about what information they are getting and what they would want.

Leonard: There are free tools out there like Survey monkey that can allow them to do that. I am going to throw out another suggestion. Partnering with colleges, partnering with the communications and journalism classes with colleges and sit down with them and say, “How do I communicate, how do I get feedback, how do I quantify that feedback, how do I make that it a meaningful exchange”. I think journalism is changing, they are just as challenged as everybody else, the journalism schools. At least they are examining this issue they would be wonderful places to assist local law enforcement agencies. Agree or disagree?

Deborah : Absolutely, I mean certainly here in beautiful Oxford, Mississippi where the University of Mississippi is located our local police department is very active on Twitter for example, and if someone came to us and said “Hey, we want a crash course in better engagement on Twitter”. I know there are several faculty that would be delighted to do something like this. I think that is an excellent idea as well.

Leonard: So I am not suggesting replacing community meetings, community meetings are essential. I go back to the idea where you can go and sit with 100 or you can go and talk with social media and talk with thousands. I am suggesting the possibly of doing both. If you are going to do it digitally it has to be not just you suggested a little while ago Deb, not just the public affairs person, the chief the deputy chief the commander at various districts need to be able to do this as well correct? They need to have this constant check in with the community, what are we doing right, what are we doing wrong, where are we messing up. That has to be across the board throughout the agency, there has to be a larger sense not I think what others have said more communication with media. Media is in the position of being in the conduit to get the word out beyond social media. Correct?

Deborah : Absolutely, and something that you said, “Not giving up on the community meeting”. Why not make the impact exponential go to the community meeting come up with a hashtag for the meeting and encourage everyone at the meeting to tweet about what they are hearing at the community meeting. Then you had the one on one interaction then you spread it to those who cannot be included to that particular meeting. Figure out how to leverage the things the things you are already doing and expand them through the use of social media and part of that is to train more than one person in the department on how to do this properly and effectively.

Leonard: Ted, we have one minute left. In terms of working with the media being more open and approachable to and more cooperative to with the media, we in the criminal justice system we have a hard time doing that. Do we not?

Deborah : You know…

Ted: I don’t know its hard to generalize that. Some agencies do it every well, other agencies don’t do it very well. A lot of agencies unfortunately perceive that the media is interested in so called bad news about your agencies and in those cases it can be pretty hard to communicate

Leonard: A question to either one of you. Can we partner with the media then? Can the criminal justice system partner with the media, in terms of communicating with the public and getting reation to the public? Is that permissiable?

Deborah : I think the media and law enforcement need each other. I think most smart folks in both areas understand that. I think the more they can do to build relationships and whether that’s you know, training for each other or simply sharing the practices the better off the community is and each of the individual entities.

Leonard: It’s a fascinating conversation with both of you. I appreciate so much both of you being before the microphones today because this is a very complexing issue, the proper communicating between law enforcement, the criminal justice and the public it is a very complex issue. So thank you very much for being at the microphones today. Ladies and gentleman we had Deborah Winger, she is director of undergraduate journalism, associate professor at the Meek School of Journalism University of Mississippi. She has her own blog, extraordinarily interesting, advancethestory.com. Ted Guest is the Washington Bureau Chief of the crime report and somebody who has been around journalism for decades. Somebody who I really trust, thecrimereport.org. Ladies and gentleman this is D.C. public safety we appreciate your comments we even appreciate your criticisms. We want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.

Share

Offender Reentry and the Arts

DC Public Safety Radio

See the main site at http://media.csosa.gov

See the radio program at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2015/04/prisoner-reentry-and-the-arts-woolly-mammoth-theatre-company-2/

Leonard Sipes: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety, I’m your host, Leonard Sikes. The topic today, ladies and gentlemen, prison re-entry and the arts. We try to bring all perspectives to this issue of offender re-entry, this will be our third program with the arts community. By our microphones is Kristin Jackson, she is the connectivity director for the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company here in Washington DC. Also before our microphones, Teresa Hodge, she is the founder and director of innovation and strategy for Mission Launch, and we also have Justin McCarthy. He is the communications coordinator for Woolly Mammoth, and to Kristin and Theresa and Justin, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Justin McCarthy: Thanks Leonard.

Leonard Sipes: What is Woolly Mammoth, Justin?

Justin McCarthy: So Woolly Mammoth is a non-profit theater company in Washington DC. We’re currently in our 35th full season of operation.

Leonard Sipes: You guys have been around forever.

Justin McCarthy: Yep, that’s right.

Leonard Sipes: You have a great reputation.

Justin McCarthy: Well, thanks very much, and, you know, a lot has changed in those 35 years but one thing that’s sorta remained constant, and I guess this is the easiest way to sort of [inaudible 00:01:08] what we do that separates us from most theater companies out there, is to say that all of our plays have a sort of civic conversation around them

Leonard Sipes: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Justin McCarthy: They all address social, cultural, or political issues, and …

Leonard Sikes: Why Woolly Mammoth?

Justin McCarthy: That’s a great question.

Leonard Sikes: Yes, it is a great question.

Justin McCarthy: Well, there’s a story behind that. Our founding artistic director and the partner with him who founded the company, they were up late one night brainstorming potential, you know, theater names and in the morning they found “Woolly Mammoth Theater Company” written on a cocktail napkin.

Leonard Sikes: There you go, the hand of God!

Justin McCarthy: So, it was a sign, but I guess you could say that the inspiration there is that we, the idea is that we are sort of nomadic, like the woolly mammoths of the ore, traveling from place to place and telling our stories, like, you know, like any paleontologist would tell you a woolly mammoth did.

Leonard Sikes: There you go, all right. Lights Rise On Grace is the name of the play that is currently running which is the idea behind the radio show today. It’s running now through April 26th at Woolly Mammoth, www. See if I get this right, w-o-l-l-y-m-a-m-m-o-t-h?

Justin McCarthy: Almost. Two O’s.

Leonard Sikes: W-o-l-l-y-m …

Justin McCarthy: So it’d be w-o-o-l-l-y-m-a-m-mo-t-h.

Leonard Sikes: W-o-o-l-l-y-m-a-m-m-o-t-h.

Justin McCarthy: Why didn’t you tell me this was going to be a spelling test?

Leonard Sikes: .net. Okay, cool, but I do want people to connect to the theater company because again, it’s a large, rather established theater company and this is an amazing play: Lights Rise On Grace, Kristin you’re going to tell me a little bit about that?

Kristin Jackson: I sure will. So Lights Rise On Grace is a play written by Chad Beckham, and it is actually part of a rolling world premiere, our production, and this is through the new play network, the national new play network, and so if you don’t catch it here at Woolly you can also check it out at Stageworks in Tampa, Florida and the Azuka Theater in Philadelphia.

Leonard Sikes: So this is gonna travel from city to city that’s great.

Kristin Jackson: The play will. This particular production is unique to Woolly

Leonard Sikes: Okay.

Kristin Jackson: But essentially what the play is about is three young people, from sort of the inner city and they are trying to sort of grapple with these questions of race, and sexuality, family, and you know, what are the families that you’re born into versus the families that you create, and one of the sort of big inciting events in this play is that Large, one of the characters, ends up incarcerated, and when he returns home, he’s sort of having to deal with these challenges of, you know, how he’s changed following his incarceration and how to sort of reintegrate back into the life he had before.

Leonard Sikes: Which is always difficult, and that’s one of the reasons that we have Teresa here, Teresa Hodge, founder and director of innovation and strategy for mission launch. Teresa, you’ve been caught up in the criminal justice system before.

Teresa Hodge: I have. I actually served a 70-month federal prison sentence.

Leonard Sikes: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Teresa Hodge: I was at Alder’s in West Virginia, little bit different than the character, because based upon how the story looks, I previewed it, it appears that he probably went to state prison and I went to federal prison.

Leonard Sikes: Right.

Teresa Hodge: And there is a difference between the two.

Leonard Sikes: Well, we should clarify for everybody throughout the country that’s listening to this that since the reorganization act in 2000 in Washington DC, you can violate DC code here in the District of Columbia, the nation’s capital, but you are sent to a federal prison.

Teresa Hodge: Right.

Leonard Sikes: So most people, you’re right, the vast majority of people who are incarcerated in the country go to state prison, so you went to a federal prison.

Teresa Hodge: I went to a federal prison, I’m actually a Maryland resident and so my case was a Maryland case but it was also a federal case.

Leonard Sikes: Okay, and so what is your connection to this play, Lights Rise On Grace?

Teresa Hodge: On tomorrow evening, I will be moderating a panel discussion. We will have, with me, there will be four other people who’ve been to prison, and after the play we’re going to discuss the realities of going to prison, and just maybe answer some of the questions that the audience might have as it relates to, was this, you know some of the scenarios that came forth on stage, how real is that?

Leonard Sikes: Why is it important that the arts community address the issue of people coming out of the prison system? Everybody has their own perspective, I bet. I could talk to cops, I could talk to people at corrections, I could talk to politicians, I could talk to community members, I could talk to people caught up in the criminal justice system themselves, and everybody’s going to bring a different perspective to the issue of people coming out of the prison system. What does the arts community bring to this discussion that’s new and unique?

Kristin Jackson: Well, part of what I think the arts community brings to this discussion, and part of what I know Woolly Mammoth tries to bring to this discussion is ensuring that there are folks coming to see the show, for whom these issues and these stories are either personally, or professionally, meaningful.

Leonard Sikes: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Kristin Jackson: And, we use our stories to really sort of open the hearts of folks, and I think that through the work that we do both on stage and also in fostering dialogue, what we hope, what we call sort of “explosive engagement,” that we are able to create understanding, we are able to foster community, and we’re able to change people’s hearts in a way that may not otherwise be possible.

Leonard Sikes: One of the interesting things about doing this show is I talk to lots of people who were once caught up in the criminal justice system, and these are people who step out of the norm. They create their own businesses, they create their own podcasts, they create their own manuals, they do community/public speaking, and I have to remind myself from time to time that’s one-tenth of one percent of the seven-hundred thousand people coming out of the prison system. The overwhelming majority of the people coming out of the prison systems every year throughout the United States have no voice. So, I would imagine, this brings an issue that most people feel uncomfortable about talking about, correct?

Justin McCarthy: Right.

Teresa Hodge: I definitely … one of the reasons why I do what I do, I am a person who advocates and I speak because I wanna show what prison looks like, and it doesn’t always look like what we think. So, I think that’s very important that we began to humanize who’s going into prison and who’s coming home. It is a very tough topic, people, it makes you uncomfortable, and it’s a complicated and complex topic, and there’s many paths that take people to prison.

Leonard Sikes: Right.

Teresa Hodge: So it’s important that we understand all the various paths that are going to be necessary for people when they come home from prison as well.

Leonard Sikes: But you, and the arts community ends up through either photography or video, or in terms of this particular play, Lights Rise On Grace, you provide a voice to people who essentially see themselves as voiceless. You provide a conduit to have a discussion that most people don’t really care about. The only thing that they hear about people caught up in the criminal justice system is what they hear on the evening news, what they see on local television, what they read about in the newspaper that ex-offender does something horrendous and goes back to prison for another 20-25 years. That’s their impression of people caught up in the criminal justice system. You’re trying to humanize what that process is and who these people are, correct?

Teresa Hodge: Yes, well, that’s probably …

Justin McCarthy: No that’s great, that’s very eloquently put. I think the important thing about art is addressing these issues, that, you know, I mean it certainly works the way that Kristin and Teresa put it. It certainly is wonderful for people who deal everyday with these issues.

Leonard Sikes: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Justin McCarthy: But, on the other side of the coin for people that are just interested in seeing a play, they’ll find that they’ll be engaging with these issues too. So we always say the most important part of our work, it doesn’t happen on stage, it happens before the show and after the show, when audience members are talking about the issues that we’re addressing on stage.

Leonard Sikes: It’s one of the reasons why Teresa, you’re going to be leading that larger discussion with people who are caught up in the criminal justice system, so they have the context of the play and they have the context of the people actually being caught up in the system.

Teresa Hodge: Absolutely. The individuals that will be coming to speak with us have been home for as little as six months, to six years, and so many of them are still facing some of the challenges of employment, of housing, a lot of them have been successful in getting back on their feet. But they’re going to be able to share what it’s like being in prison, but then also the challenges of coming home. Most people who come home from prison say coming home from prison is much harder than being in prison.

Leonard Sikes: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Kristin Jackson: One thing I also wanted to add, that Teresa and mission launch were very, sort of vital in helping us develop. It was part of our lobby experience for the show.

Leonard Sikes: Oh, tell me about that.

Kristin Jackson: Woolly does something pretty unique in that we have these interactive lobby experiences that help, sort of illuminate either the content, or the form, or the issues that are embedded in our plays. One of the things we did for Lights Rise On Grace was a sort of life-sized re-entry game board, where our audience members are able to go through some the, sort of, challenges and some of the, I guess you could say victories that we see that returning citizens are experiencing. So they are literally in this sort of fun and playful way, both learning about these experiences in a very personal way, and helping them to make those connections.

Leonard Sikes: But do you see the interesting aspect here in terms of the arts community, Comedy Central and Jon Stewart, so many millennials use that as their news source.

Justin McCarthy: Sure.

Leonard Sikes: I mean, they bring comedy, they use comedy as a conduit to talk about endless types of topics, and comedy brings a different perspective to it. Comedy brings a perspective that the average person, discussing whatever it is, simply wouldn’t bring up, they wouldn’t look at it that way, so you’re looking at it through new eyes, a fresh perspective. So I’m gonna go back to that question. What does the arts community, and what can the arts community, what do they do and what can they say to really drive home this point in a truly unique way? What is truly unique about this particular play and the arts community in terms of re-entry?

Justin McCarthy: What I will say is that, for Woolly in general, it’s really important to our artistic team that our shows be funny, and, you know, what that does is when you have sort of comedic elements, you know, in combination, in tandem with issues that are sort of difficult to discuss, it makes it easier to engage with, it provides a sort of humanizing element in a kind of … it makes it easier to connect.

Leonard Sikes: And you can get away with much more than you can in a straight discussion …

Justin McCarthy: That’s right.

Leonard Sikes: On the issue. I mean, I’ve been interviewed by dozens and dozens of radio talk shows, and so I have to represent a particular point of view, but with the arts community you’re free to say whatever it is that you want. So what is it that you wanna say that is not being said by those of us in the criminal justice system? Teresa, I’m gonna put that in your lap.

Teresa Hodge: Well I think, after watching this play, I think that the audience will walk away feeling like, this could’ve happened to me. It was just a very relatable moment.

Leonard Sikes: A shared experience.

Teresa Hodge: Extremely shared experience.

Leonard Sikes: Okay.

Teresa Hodge: So, I think that makes it a little bit easier for people to understand prison, prison re-entry, when you understand that, what took place, and I don’t wanna give a whole spoiler alert on the play itself, but when you actually consider the path that led this person to prison, it was a relatively easy path, and the court system didn’t take into consideration the history of his family and some other circumstances that kind of led him there. I think people will walk away thinking about this long after they’ve viewed the play itself.

Leonard Sikes: So it’s something that’s gonna stick around, it’s something that’s going to create a cathartic moment for them possibly

Teresa Hodge: Possibly.

Leonard Sikes: Something that they’re willing to discuss with their friends and neighbors, so it transcends just the audience, it goes way beyond that.

Teresa Hodge: Right and I think the next time you pick up the newspaper, or you look at the news, you’ll think about it.

Leonard Sikes: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and it may be, that’s the most important thing. If our only reference is what we’re seeing on television, if that’s our only reference to quote on quote “criminals,” people caught up in the criminal justice system, this is a new and fresh perspective.

Teresa Hodge: Absolutely. What I often talk to people, and I tell them what I do with Mission Launch, I’m amazed that they talk about ‘those people.’ They don’t think I’m one of those people when they’re talking to me.

Leonard Sikes: Right.

Teresa Hodge: Then after, I let them go on and then I’ll say well, I’m actually one of the people I’m talking about, and so I think it’s just really important. I’m excited that we were invited to be able to bring five people who’ve been to prison so that the audience will not only get to see the actors, but they will actually be able to interact with five individuals who, I’m confident, if they walked down the street they wouldn’t have known.

Leonard Sikes: We’re halfway through the program, a really interesting discussion on prison re-entry and the arts community. Before our microphones today is Kristin Jackson, she is the connectivity director for the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company. We have Teresa Hodge, she is founder and director of innovation and strategy for Mission Launch, and Justin McCarthy, the communications coordinator for Woolly Mammoth. We’re talking about the play Lights Rise On Grace, running now at Woolly Mammoth to April 26th, and let’s see if I can stumble through the website without screwing this up: www.woolymammoth.net, you’re shaking your heads?

Justin McCarthy: It’s almost … the two O’s and the to L’s is, it’s tough.

Leonard Sikes: Oh! Goodness gracious, www.woollymammoth.net.

Justin McCarthy: I work there and I mess it up every day.

Leonard Sikes: Just search for Woolly Mammoth, ladies and gentlemen, Woolly Mammoth and Washington DC. How many Woolly Mammoth’s can there be?

Justin McCarthy: Right. We’re the only one.

Leonard Sikes: I have this group in New York that said Leonard, you can’t pronounce a name to save your life. Now they’re gonna say you can’t give out a website address to save your life.

Justin McCarthy: This is hard, you know, those to O’s and those two L’s …

Leonard Sikes: Oh, Lord. Okay, I don’t think I’m getting, I think I’m getting very controlled answers from the three of you in terms of what the arts community can provide to this. When I sit down and talk with people caught up in the criminal justice system before these microphones, as I said before hitting the record button, the best shows are always after I stop it, and then they let loose with all of this emotion about how people just don’t get it when it comes to people coming out of the prison system, what it means for them, what it means for their kids. You take a look at some stats, and one out of every thirty people is currently, you’re gonna come into contact with, is currently involved in the criminal justice system and if you expound upon that people who have been arrested and people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system before, certainly criminologists have said one out of twenty.

So, you’re interacting every single day with people caught up in the criminal justice system. So what does that mean to the arts community to have so many people caught up in the criminal justice system interacting with us, our family, our kids, every single day? What does the arts community have to say to that?

Teresa Hodge: Well I think this is a right-now topic. Prison is an important topic, it’s a very expensive topic to our communities, and I think it’s one of those, people suffer in silence. Nobody wants to talk about it, nobody wants to say, “I have a family member in prison, I have a son in prison, I have a daughter in prison.” But what I’ve discovered is, when I reveal that I’ve been to prison, everybody lets me know about their secrets to.

Leonard Sikes: There we go. So many of us know people in our family, in our friends, that have been caught up in the criminal justice system, it’s not all that unusual.

Teresa Hodge: Absolutely. I said, in the theater last week, and so there was a hundred plus people there, if the statistics were right, five people had probably been to prison.

Leonard Sikes: Oh, probably more than that out of the hundred, caught up in the criminal justice system. The theater has led the discussion in terms of gay rights, the theater has led the discussion and the arts community has led the discussion in terms of rights for women, rights for African Americans, rights for just about every group that has marginalized within the country, so the theater community has had that powerful voice over the sense of decades and has contributed mightily to the discussion of issues that people find a hard time discussing. So, as you said, Justin, you bring a sense of humor to it and that allows you to talk about things that are ordinarily uncomfortable.

Justin McCarthy: I think so. It sort of lets people have these moments where they say, “Okay, it’s not just me and criminals,” you know, it allows for this space of connection that you don’t see, and especially with an issue like this where it’s sort of socially, I mean it’s not something that you discuss if you’re someone who’s affected by it. We’re kind of opening the door to that discussion, and it’s something that we try to do in our shows, which we don’t just produce to entertain people, we’re trying to sort of model a form of civic discourse with what we do, and particularly with our plays that address issues like this, like incarceration and re-entry.

Leonard Sikes: One of the things that Kristin said is that it is a topic that is emerging as a point of discussion, it is a topic that more people are feeling more comfortable talking about, simply because governor’s in every state in this country have taken a look at their overall budgets and said what percentage goes into corrections, and can we have an impact on that? People from both the right and left end of the spectrum are now supporting a discussion and alternatives to incarceration, and a different way of doing things. So this is a discussion that’s building momentum, but yet the average person out there is not like, “Well, gee how did the national’s do last night, what do you think the weather’s going to be like tomorrow, by the way how’s your son in prison?”

Teresa Hodge: Yeah, that’s not usually what follows how the nationals were doing that’s for sure.

Leonard Sikes: Yes. But I mean, do you understand?

Teresa Hodge: Absolutely.

Leonard Sikes: As you just said, Kristin, a little while ago, this is a conversation that a lot of people feel uncomfortable with because they’re not quite sure who those people in prison are. They see, the average person sees themselves as completely separate from those people locked up. They don’t see any connection at all to those individuals, and we’re talking about 1.5 million people it prison, another 500,000 in jail, so we’re talking about two million people who are behind bars today, and we’re also talking about another five million who are under community supervision today, so we’re talking about seven million human beings today. A snapshot in time, with about 600-700 thousand coming out of prison every year, many more than that coming our of the jail system. So, you’re talking about just an enormous amount of human beings.

Justin McCarthy: That’s correct.

Leonard Sikes: Now, it seems like it’s an appropriate time for the arts community to get involved in this and lead this discussion as the arts community has led discussions in other difficult topics throughout the years, correct?

Kristin Jackson: Absolutely. I mean, we believe in theater as a tool for social change, theater as a site for examining and understanding everyday life. We, you know, we believe that the theater can serve as a model for the sort of participatory, creative, democratic society that we want, and that we aspire to.

Leonard Sikes: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Kristin Jackson: So, I certainly believe that, as arts leaders, as arts makers, it is our responsibility to, you know, use the platforms that we have and work with our partners who are, you know, carrying, who are engaged in the fight already, and find ways to use these different sites that we have access to in order to, you know, bring folks together and change their way of thinking. I mean, being here in Washington DC, like that is an incredible opportunity, because, you know, Woolly Mammoth, we welcome folks from all sides of the political spectrum.

Leonard Sikes: Sure.

Kristin Jackson: And, I think that by providing the opportunity for these really diverse audiences to get together, and to hear from folks who are passionate about these issues and really think about their own positions, it’s a phenomenal opportunity and it’s what drives us, I think, as a theater company to do the work that we do.

Leonard Sikes: You know who I think does a wonderful job in terms of social change in the arts?

Kristin Jackson: Hm?

Leonard Sikes: Chris Rock.

Teresa Hodge: Yes.

Justin McCarthy: I agree.

Leonard Sikes: I love watching his concerts because he’ll get involved in issues all over the spectrum, issues that make you laugh and issues that make you feel terribly uncomfortable, but issues that make you think: “Wait a minute,” he may have a point here, and so I think that’s what the arts community does. You all have leverage that the rest of us, in government and, we have to be so careful and we have to be so diplomatic, and the arts community is just out there saying, “Look, this is something that you need to look at.” Lights Rise On Grace, I would imagine, would be that sort of play. Something that people really need to look at but at the same time enjoy themselves in terms of the experience.

Justin McCarthy: It is. It is, and you’ll see these, sort of, humorous relatable elements happening alongside these really kind of dangerous and scary moments in the play. I’m thinking of one in particular, when the character who becomes incarcerated, the first person who becomes incarcerated that the audience encounters, he meets someone in his first few days in prison who’s been in the prison for long time, and their first interaction is so very funny and comic, because it’s just the awkwardness of two people meeting for the first time, but of course it’s prison so there’s also like the threat of violence and this awful kind of context hanging over it. So you can look at it in sort of one of two ways, you know, but of course the audience ends up laughing along because it’s something that’s relatable and …

Leonard Sikes: Sure.

Justin McCarthy: Something you can kind of understand, but all of a sudden these two people aren’t just like criminals that have no connection to you, they’re people just like you and so it’s this incredible moment and the play is full of moments just like that.

Leonard Sikes: Teresa, as somebody who’s been caught up in the criminal justice system, what is it that people need to understand about people caught up in the criminal justice system that they just need to understand, it’s something that they don’t think of on a day-to-day basis, they need to understand it, what do they need to understand?

Teresa Hodge: I think that first, we just need to understand that they’re people, and I think that right across the board that’s just an important piece. There are individuals who maybe made a mistake and their worst moment was put on trial, and going to prison is very scary for the person, it’s often traumatizing for the person to be in prison, to be away from their family, to be kept away from society, to be kept away from technology.

Leonard Sikes: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Teresa Hodge: It is incredibly difficult to come home from prison when we live in such a technology-savvy age, and every three months, technology is doing something new and different. I think that we have to be patient, and we have to try to find creative ways to engage people because it’s very expensive for people to come home and get back on their feet. I’ve found very few people who were sitting in prison wondering when they were gonna come back to prison, but yet I’m always baffled by the number of, for me, women who I engaged and encountered while I was in prison who had real strong dreams and hopes for their future, and six months later I find out that they’re back in prison.

Leonard Sikes: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Teresa Hodge: It makes me stop and wonder what happened. Where did a system break down? Where were they unable to latch to a community, and how were they unable to kind of attach to that last good thought that they had, which was in prison?

Leonard Sikes: I can’t imagine a more complex set of human emotions, when you do come out of the prison system because women have kids that they wanna reunite with, you have a drug habit that you’ve got to conquer, many people caught up in the criminal justice system have mental health problems, they have to come out and find work and yet people turn them down because of their criminal histories. You have the stereotype, I mean if a person comes back and says, “Hi, I’ve spent the last five years in prison,” you know, what does that mean to the social circle and, does that repulse does that intrigue people? I mean, these are just incredible human dimensions that just crash out of these six or seven hundred thousand people on a year-to-year basis when they come out of that prison system. The emotions are raw, the issues are real.

Justin McCarthy: Oh, absolutely, and you’re seeing, what you’re talking about, Len, is all of these, just this incredible, you know, laundry list of difficulties and challenges that are facing re-entering citizens.

Leonard Sikes: And I sometimes wonder, with all of the things that people have to deal with when they come out of the prison system, I mean, I have a women offender sitting by these microphones basically saying it is almost impossible to do what everybody wants me to do, it is almost impossible to succeed, and sometimes they get the sense that we stack the cards tremendously, which is one of the reasons why Lights On Grace that is running now, through Woolly Mammoth here at Washington DC, running now through April 26th, become such an important point and I’m glad we’ve had this possibility, this opportunity to discuss the play, and discuss Woolly Mammoth, and discuss re-entry. By our microphones today has been Kristin Jackson, she is connectivity director for the Woolly Mammoth Theater Company. Teresa Hodge, founder and director of innovation and strategy for Mission Launch, and Justin McCarthy, he is communications coordinator for, again, for Woolly Mammoth, I wanna try this one more time: ww – Just, go ahead and Google Woolly Mammoth and DC. www.woollymammoth.net. I got it right for the first time at the end of the program.

Justin McCarthy: Nailed it.

Leonard Sikes: Ladies and gentlemen this is DC Public Safety, we appreciate your comments, we even appreciate you criticisms, and we want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.

Share

Crime Reporting in America

Crime Reporting in America

DC Public Safety

http://media.csosa.gov

Link to radio show; http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2015/01/crime-reporting-america/

LEONARD SIPES: From the Nation’s Capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentleman, we have a heck of a show for you today; Crime Reporting in America is the name of the show. We have Deb Wenger, she is the Associate Professor at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi, www.advancingthestory.com. I’ll give out that address several times throughout the show. And we have Ted Gest, he is President of Criminal Justice Journalists. He is also the Washington Bureau Chief of the Crime Report.org, www.crimereport.org, to talk about the quality of crime reporting in the United States. A report came out a little while ago that was put out by Deb and Dr. Rocky Dailey from John J. Center on Media Crime and Justice; A Special Report, the Crime Beat; Does Quality Matter? And the report went over a content analysis of six newspapers and they find a significant amount of crime reporting but it raises questions about the quality of the reporting. To Debora and to Ted, welcome to DC Public Safety.

DEBORA WENGER: Thank you.

TED GEST: Thanks.

LEONARD SIPES: All right, Debora, give me a sense of that report; The Crime Beat; Does Quality Matter? Because I got the sense from the report that the majority of the reports were single source. They didn’t go beyond that one particular source and you expressed a concern within the report that too many reporters were taking the word of the government spokesperson or the criminal justice spokesperson and that was the story. Am I right or wrong?

DEBORA WENGER: You are correct. As many as 65% of the stories that we coded for a one-month period in six metropolitan daily newspapers indicated that, take that back, so about 65% of the stories in these newspapers essentially relied on one source. And about a third of the time that one source was an official. So it was someone from law enforcement primarily. And because of that our concern, which we raised in our study is that law enforcement or officials often have an agenda. And their, you know, agenda then is reported in an unfiltered way to the wider audience in stories that only rely on one source.

LEONARD SIPES: And if truth be told I am one of those people because I represent a federal criminal justice agency, Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, a federal probation agency and so I’m one of those people that provide that information. What you did was take a look at a variety of cities and you took a look at all those articles and you figured out how many people were talking to crime reporters, how many people were doing crime stories, how many were single source. And then you went and talked to both people within the criminal justice system and reporters themselves, correct?

DEBORA WENGER: Yes, so we talked to editors but obviously the editors are also sometimes doing crime reporting themselves and what we found is a willingness to confess, I would say, that it is common to only rely on an official law enforcement source. And even to go so far as to express a concern that they wish they could do more reporting that was more comprehensive and included more points of view. But that often constraints just on resources and time and to some extent, you know, kind of standard practice has been to say it’s okay to talk to a PIO, a Public Information Officer and use that as a source for a brief. A brief being, you know, a story of maybe 100, 150 words or so.

LEONARD SIPES: Mmm-hmm.

DEBORA WENGER: And so when you look at kind of the way newspapers have operated for decades, you know, that has been a standard practice. So part of it is not – it could come from not thinking about exactly how the nature of reporting and the nature of journalism needs to change in a world where most people can access those news releases themselves online. So, you know, to some extent I think that the editors that we talked to, if I use the word admitted, that not all prime coverage was as comprehensive as it could be and should be.

LEONARD SIPES: I talked to a variety of my peers within government about this and I want to bring their points of view into this discussion. But first I want to reintroduce Ted Gest. He’s President of Criminal Justice Journalists, Washington Bureau Chief of the Crime Report.org, www.crimereport.org, which is unquestionably the best news summation that comes out every single day of crime and criminal justice coverage throughout the United States. Ted, every day I devour your report. And if I take a look at that report my sense is you couldn’t possibly have better crime and justice coverage because the reports that you cover, you provide a synopsis of newspaper reports from throughout the country. And they’re extraordinary, they’re good hard-hitting journalism. If you read your report every day you get the sense that the quality of criminal justice journalism in this country is wonderful, but is that the case?

TED GEST: Well it’s wonderful in some cases and on some days. To put this in perspective we put out what we consider are the most significant 12 stories. We use a dozen stories a day from the entire country, occasionally from other countries, but, and some of these are newspaper stories, some of them are accounts of government reports and reports by academics and interest groups and that kind of thing. But you’re right, these are the 12 best stories and they’re based on going through a lot of websites of newspapers and other media. And what you don’t see in that report is the fact that on a lot of newspaper websites every day, at least on the home pages, you don’t see very much about crime and justice as very significant. You may see an account of an individual crime, someone was shot, someone was killed, but you don’t often see on most newspaper websites, and I think I can include television station websites in this too, stories that really examine serious problems in the criminal justice system. It may be a police shooting. It may be a court that is not functioning well or a prison that has a high recidivism rate. When we see those stories we use them but for the most part you’re not going to see them on an average newspaper on an average day. That doesn’t mean journalism is bad. It may just mean it’s not there.

LEONARD SIPES: But I did want to talk about the state of journalism in a couple minutes. There’s so many things I do want to talk about. But, again, President of Criminal Justice Journalists, you have an organization, I think you mentioned one time of 600 or 700 journalists who are interested in the crime issue. So they’re constantly networking with each other to assist each other.

TED GEST: Yes, the number and the individuals are constantly varying. And one challenge is that because of economic issues in the news business these days, no one really knows this, but there probably are fewer reporters than there were ten or 20 years ago who are really covering this beat either on a full time basis. Or most of the time some of them are only covering it occasionally when there’s some big problem that comes up that requires their attention. But, so yeah, that’s basically it. We try to network with the reports all over the country. I think one thing that is clear from Deb’s study is there still is a lot of quantity of crime coverage. We don’t worry about the quantity, I mean, there are some other subjects in the world that don’t get any coverage, but that’s not true of crime. There’s plenty of quantity out there but, again –

LEONARD SIPES: The quality.

TED GEST: What we’ll get into here is the quality.

LEONARD SIPES: There was a piece of research and mentioned in your report, Debora, talking about PIO basically saying that the crime issue is one of the most popular topics and that the majority of the American Public pays pretty close attention to the issue of crime within this country. Is that correct?

TED GEST: Yeah, absolutely. I believe the last time PIO actually did this particular type of survey was 2011. But at that point they found that 36% of people get their crime from newspapers specifically, 29% from television, which, you know, I think a lot of folks who pay attention to crime have a sense of that all television news is, is crime.

LEONARD SIPES: Mmm-hmm.

TED GEST: But most people, at least in this particular survey, were getting most of their crime news from newspapers and 12% from web. Now I would guess that those numbers, those percentages would be shifting as mobile delivery and other forms of digital news content become more and more popular. That’s actually an issue that would be of interest for further study is just where are people getting crime news from –

LEONARD SIPES: Mmm-hmm.

TED GEST: To determine how important each particular medium is to accurately reporting the crime realities in this country.

LEONARD SIPES: Taking a look at other PIO research and research from other organizations, tell me if I’m right either one of you, that the numbers within newsrooms, the individual number of reporters within newsrooms has declined up to a third in the last ten years. I know of newsrooms where it’s declined close to half. So you have far fewer reporters out there and far, and I’m going to guess and other people have told me this, not necessarily my guess but the guess of others, is that the people specializing in terms of particular beats whether it be education, the environment or crime and justice. Those numbers have declined as well, am I right or the people making these observations, are we right or wrong?

TED GEST: Well I think we’re right on that. But I think one key word you just used was newsrooms and by newsrooms I think you’re implying newspapers and broadcast outlets. And I think that’s true of newsrooms but one thing we have to keep in mind is that there has been a proliferation of websites of all sorts of descriptions. Some of them call themselves news websites, others are just blogs, people with their opinion. But I think, I hope Deb would agree with me, there are still lots of sources of crime information out there beyond news – you’re correct on newsrooms, but it’s possible that the amount of raw information out there available to the public on crime and justice issues from all of these various sources really is about the same. What is different, as you say, is people specializing in them so we get a nuanced analysis of trends and meanings of developments rather than just sort of basic raw information.

LEONARD SIPES: Deb, did you want to chime in on that?

DEBORA WENGER: Yeah, and just one point of clarification. I think it is actually true of newspaper newsrooms. Television really hasn’t seen that much of a reduction in staff. But I will agree that in terms of beats in general, whether that is a crime beat or, you know, a city hall beat, have suffered with the new environment as Ted is describing where there’s so much information coming in at all of us all the time from a myriad of sources that you would think we would need more beat reporters.

LEONARD SIPES: Mmm-hmm.

DEBORA WENGER: Regardless of medium to help make sense of it all, but my sense is that the trend has actually gone the other way, that there are fewer people specializing in particular topics.

LEONARD SIPES: And that’s the third point that I wanted to get to, that there are more generalists. One day you’re covering a fire, one day you’re covering a sinkhole and the next day you’re covering a series of homicides in a particular city. So you have generalists covering crime and criminal justice issues where in past decades you had knowledgeable individuals who knew the criminal justice system up one side and down the other covering the same issue. Am I right or wrong or the people giving me that observation, are they right or wrong?

TED GEST: Yeah, I think that is right. But it varies greatly from city to city and from time to time. But as I indicated earlier there’s some newspapers that you could look at almost every day and find some pretty good analysis. I’ll just pick one out, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

LEONARD SIPES: Mmm-hmm.

TED GEST: Which is not one of those papers that is familiar I think to a lot of people around the country, they do a particularly good job of being a watch dog on the police department and the courts and the correction system in their area and that’s been true for some time and there are several other newspapers that fall into that category but then this varies. A newspaper that might have done this to a great extent a few years ago might not be doing it today and that might be because of layoffs. It might be because a particular person who was doing that has gotten another job or gone off and done something else. So I want to emphasize that it varies. It’s pretty hard to make a generalization that everything has gotten worse or has gotten less. I mean, some newspapers and TV stations are doing more and some doing less, but it just varies depending on where you are.

LEONARD SIPES: Debora, I think you mentioned in your report that certain cities did a much better job than others. In fact, some newspapers picked up the lion’s share of reports. I think you mentioned Detroit as putting out a lot of good crime news.

DEBORA WENGER: Yeah, you know, and we didn’t actually make an assessment of whether or not the reporting was of high quality or low quality. I mean, we were really just trying to set a baseline for how much crime is being reported and what types of sources are being used, what categories of crime are being covered. The Detroit Free Press stood out in the study because of its coverage of corrections issues in particular. And, you know, they talked, the group of six, with more than 10% of their coverage devoted to corrections issues. And they tended to have a pretty wide range of topics that they covered. So, you know, I do think that that’s kudos to folks there. The Indianapolis Star did some excellent reporting during the time period that we studied in this one month, March 2014, you know, they were probably the best in the study at putting crime in context. So not relying on a single source and not only –

LEONARD SIPES: When we come –

DEBORA WENGER: Go ahead.

LEONARD SIPES: Well I just wanted to break, so go ahead and finish your thought.

DEBORA WENGER: So they were – the Indianapolis Star was very cognizant of the need to provide context to bring meaning as Ted referenced to the crime reporting that they do.

LEONARD SIPES: What I do want to do in the second half of the program is to go into where do we go from here, if there are any other observations that I have not covered. Where do we go to from here and to bring in the observations of other government spokespeople as to the change that they’ve seen occurred and I think I’ve seen occurred over the course of the last 10-15 years. But before going any further with the program, ladies and gentlemen, we’re doing a report – we’re doing our program today on crime reporting in America. Deb Wenger is Associate Professor at Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi, www.advancingthestory.com is her website. And Ted Gest, he is the President of Criminal Justice Journalists and the Washington Bureau Chief of Crime Report.org. The best news summation we have in the United States, www.crimereport.org. Focusing on a piece of research from John J. College of Criminal Justice by Debora and by Dr. Rocky Dailey, the Crime Beat does quality matter content analysis of six United States newspapers. My counterparts Ted and Debora, they’re basically saying, wow, where have all the reporters gone. Our jobs used to be morning, noon and night endless hardnosed, hard-hitting questions by people who knew our beats up one side and down the other, evenings, weekends. As David Simon who has written Homicide and the Coroner in Baltimore, in the Baltimore Sun just barging his way into my office with Bill Zorzie, playing with the papers on my desk and this was sort of a friendly attack, because there were smiles throughout the room. But they’ve made it known that they’re aggressive reporters doing aggressive reporting, no holds barred reporting. They didn’t give any breaks to those of us who were considered government flacks. A lot of us who are in public affairs don’t see that level of aggressiveness anymore. Did anybody want to opine on that?

TED GEST: Well I still there are quite a few reporters out there who do an aggressive job. We have a contest every year at John J. College and I’m one of the judges of it. And there certainly are a lot of high quality entries this year and every year that embody aggressive reporting on criminal justice topics. The thing is, as I said earlier, it’s erratic, that in some cities it’s very good, in other cities it’s not very good. So I think what the impact of what you’re saying is that there is in many areas we end up having crisis driven reporting. That let’s say a city like Chicago that occasionally in recent years has had a spate of homicides on a particular weekend or particular season. You see – you do see a lot of reporting about the homicides going on and concern by city officials, what are we going to do about this and that’s repeated in various other cities. And then taking the other parts of the criminal justice system, there are reports let’s say in the corrections area, a crises, when a court says that a prisoner jail is below standards and prisoners have to be released or transferred, that’s perceived correctly as a crisis and there is reporting there. But what the public doesn’t see is things that just, either officials don’t want to talk about or is not perceived as a crisis, just to give you one example, and Deb and I can give many. But we read about homicides but a lot of time we don’t ever find out what happened to the investigation of these homicides. And what we just ran in our news digest this week, a report that a reporter from Scripps Howard newspapers did about the fact that there’s a huge number of unsolved homicides in this country. I think it was several hundred thousand every since 1980 and this is replicated in a lot of local police departments. Police departments don’t want to talk generally about, oh, it turns out that 65% of the homicides last year we didn’t solve. That’s something that you don’t see talked about unless a reporter really wants to go out and get that story. And they are, in some areas, but that’s just one of many examples of the kinds of things you probably aren’t seeing in your local community.

LEONARD SIPES: Debora, did you want to opine on my question?

DEBORA WENGER: Well, and I guess I more so wanted to follow-up with a question to you is, are you still getting requests for information, is it the quality of the requests that have changed or the sheer number?

LEONARD SIPES: I can’t – I didn’t do a scientific survey.

DEBORA WENGER: Sure.

LEONARD SIPES: And it was just an informal conversation with people who are in my business. I think the number remains but I think the quality of the questions and the aggressiveness of the questions and the comprehensiveness of the questions doesn’t. I think too many spokespeople are defining stories for too many reporters and that’s just what I hear from my contemporaries. That’s one of the things that they suggest to me, which was unheard of or unthinkable 15 years ago.

DEBORA WENGER: Sure. Well and, you know, not to invalidate anybody’s sense of how things have changed from their perspective, but I do think Ted is absolutely right that, you know, it is very difficult to generalize because there does continue to be excellent crime and justice reporting. But on the other hand there, you know, I talked to my friends who are journalists and still in the business and the sheer number of stories that an individual journalist is now being asked to produce on a daily basis, and I know more about television from that standpoint than any other medium, but it’s not unusual for a single broadcast journalist to be producing more than two stories in one day.

LEONARD SIPES: Mmm-hmm.

DEBORA WENGER: And if that’s your workload you’re just not going to have the time to sink your teeth into doing the hard hitting kind of journalism that you might like to. And so you might be temped to take the word of the PIO or the spokesperson and attribute it properly and move on to your next story. So if that’s what you and folks you talk to have seen happen I might – I would think that that might be one of the reasons why it does.

LEONARD SIPES: Well it just seems to be a consensus from the people that I’ve talked to, that there seems to be a difference and in some cases a stark difference. And I think you’re correct because TV reporters, electronic reporters are not only reporting on stories but now they’re doing their own filming, now they’re doing their own editing. Newspaper reporters are now out there taking their own photographs and getting their own video, so reporters not only have the decline in number, they’ve got to do much more than what they did, again, just ten years ago when they could focus on the story. They have so many other responsibilities. So it just strikes me that that’s a valid question as to whether or not – cause the crime issue is explosive and can be explosive, take a look at Ferguson, take a look at all the other issues that we’ve been discussing over the course of the last six months. I mean, these are heavy-duty really complicated issues that require context and require insight and require research. And my question is do reporters nowadays have that context, have that insight, do they have that research background to place things in the context and put them in their proper perspective?

TED GEST: Well a lot of them don’t. A lot of reporters, I would like to say most reporters maybe, are pretty smart and resourceful and can get the information if they put their mind to it. Len, you made an allusion a minute ago to the Ferguson episode, which has clearly been the biggest single story in criminal justice in the last six months.

LEONARD SIPES: Yes.

TED GEST: After that episode, of course, that, as I said, to use my own phrasing of earlier, was perceived as a crisis, white police officer shoots unarmed black man, and produces all sorts of public protests. There’s been a huge amount of reporting on this issue, not only that case but reporters all over the country have examined similar cases in their area and how they’re handled and that kind of thing. And I think the media have done a pretty good job there, but again, that was provoked by this extreme case. And I think it’s pretty clear that on a lot of other cases that are almost as serious as Ferguson but didn’t get that much of attention initially. I’m not sure those kinds of cases or the problems that are raised by them about police practices that happened in other areas of the country would give that much attention. I’m not sure necessarily a matter of lack of expertise, it’s just that, as Deb has indicated, reporters are busy with multiple stories per day. And if that particular story that we’re talking about doesn’t seem to rise to that level of attention, it doesn’t get attention. But expertise is part of the problem, just looking for trends, looking for significant things and knowing, seeing one that hey, that looks interesting, I’m thinking of how a reporter would think, and I’m going to see if that kind of thing is happening in my area and if it’s getting the proper attention from authorities or whatever. I don’t know, Deb, do you have any elaboration on that?

DEBORA WENGER: Yeah, I mean, I think you’ve hit it that I don’t believe it’s a lack of expertise, I think it’s a lack of time. And also I do believe that the pressures on newsrooms in terms of how they interact with audience have never been greater. And to some extent audience interests and desires drive coverage. We certainly saw that in Ferguson with I think, again, it was PIO talked about 180,000 or so tweets on the actual night that the incident occurred, by the following Thursday there were 3.5 million tweets. And so it became, the audience was pushing journalists to do more coverage because they were raising more questions and demanding more information. So part of all of this, within all of this we have to also consider that, you know, journalists are operating in an environment where they’re trying to grow and engage audience.

LEONARD SIPES: We have a minute left in the program. To both of you, what do we do to improve the quality of criminal justice journalism, crime journalism in the United States?

TED GEST: I don’t know if we can deal with that in a minute but I’ll defer to Deb in a second here about what might be happening in journalism schools, which train journalists. But I think it’s basically a matter, I mean, our group and other groups like it try to educate editors and people who watch the news on what are the trends, what they should be looking for in their areas and that this comes from people who do have expertise, not only journalists but academics and think tanks and other practitioners. So just keeping them aware of things, that’s the best we can do right now. Deb –

LEONARD SIPES: Debora, do you have a thought on this?

DEBORA WENGER: Yeah, I mean, from a journalism, education perspective, you know, I think that pushing the idea that more context is always more valuable in any kind of reporting, whether it’s crime or not and from a newsroom perspective, I would just ask editors and reporters to consider whether you need the ten briefs on the dry cleaner robbery and the vandalism at the high school. Or, you know, would it be better to not write those ten briefs and get a really rich, well sourced contextualized piece on, you know, your local prison system.

LEONARD SIPES: Well it’s been a fascinating conversation with both of you. I really do think that this is an extraordinarily important topic for anybody interested in crime and justice in the United States. Ladies and gentleman, my Gests today have been Deb Wenger. She’s Associate Professor at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at University of Mississippi, www.advancingthestory.com is her website. Ted Gest, he is President of Criminal Justice Journalists, a long-term journalist himself. Somebody extraordinarily well respected within the journalism community. Washington Bureau Chief of the Crime Report.org, www.crimereport.org. What Deb and Rocky Dailey did was to put out a report called The Crime Beat; Does Quality Matter where they analyzed a variety of newspapers, six newspapers talking about significant crime reporting, but raising questions as to the quality of coverage. I’ll put the link in the show notes. Ladies and gentleman, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms. And we want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.

Share

Media and Criminal Justice Issues-National Public Radio’s Laura Sullivan-DC Public Safety Radio

See http://media.csosa.gov for our television shows, blog and transcripts.

Radio Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2012/01/media-and-criminal-justice-issues-national-public-radios-laura-sullivan-dc-public-safety-radio/

We welcome your comments or suggestions at leonard.sipes@csosa.gov or at Twitter at http://twitter.com/lensipes.

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety.  I’m your host Leonard Sipes.  We really have a wonderful guest, ladies and gentlemen, today Laura Sullivan from National Public Radio.  I invited Laura to be on the program to talk about media in criminal justice issues.  It’s my contention that the coverage of crime and criminal justice issues by both the national media and the local media has declined and declined dramatically within the last ten years.  Laura Sullivan is an NPR news investigative correspondent.  Laura Sullivan joined NPR in 2004 as a correspondent on the national desk for six years.  She covered crime and punishment issues with reports airing on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and other NPR programs.  Over the years, Sullivan’s work has been honored by many of journalism’s highest awards including two Peabodies, two, and two Alfred DuPont Columbia University Silver Batons with that lofty introduction, Laura Sullivan, National Public Radio.  How are you doing, Laura?

Laura Sullivan:  Good.  Thanks so much for having me.

Len Sipes:  Laura and I go way back.  Laura was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and she came over to National Public Radio, and my first question before we get into the crime and criminal justice issues is, what happened to become, you know, to leave the print world behind and to go in front of the microphone?  That had to be a pretty scary operation.

Laura Sullivan:  Well, you know, I used to drive down to the Washington bureau of the Baltimore Sun in DC where I covered the Justice Department and terrorism after 9/11.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And I used to listen to NPR all the time in my car.

Len Sipes:  Sure.

Laura Sullivan:  And I would drive – it was a long way.

Len Sipes:  Doesn’t everybody?

Laura Sullivan:  I think – we hope so.  We certainly hope so.  And we would – I would always listen to Radio Expeditions with Alex Chadwick.

Len Sipes:  Oh, yes.

Laura Sullivan:  And I would sit in my car in the morning, and I would think that he would be like, you know, you’d hear the crunch, crunch, crunch, we’re hiking through the woods to find the rare spotted owl, and it was just this clichéd quintessential NPR story, and I used to think, God that guy has the best job in the whole world, and you know, it’s funny, even as I was listening to all these stories in NPR, I never thought that I would go become a radio journalist.  I thought once you join print, you’re in it for life and that’s it.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And then all of a sudden an editor from the Baltimore Sun jumped ship and went to NPR.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And it was like this: it was like the clouds cleared and I said, “Well if he can do it, why can’t I go to NPR too.”

Len Sipes:  I’d do it.

Laura Sullivan:  And it helped because I knew him, so I could kind of – I mean he was helpful in sort of getting, passing my resume around, and you know sort of getting it in the door, which is always helpful.

Len Sipes:  But it’s not just being a good reporter.  You have to work the mike.  You have to project a certain personality through that microphone, and you don’t know whether or not you can do it until you do it.

Laura Sullivan:  Well, they radio test you.

Len Sipes:  Yes.

Laura Sullivan:  They did.  They radio tested us, and you had to go in – they have to see if they can turn your voice into the NPR voice.

Len Sipes:  The NPR voice.  This is NPR.

Laura Sullivan:  This is NPR.  So you have to lower your voice a couple octaves and have that voice and sound –

Len Sipes:  And a quasi-British accent.  Never heard –

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly.  Sound very calm, and it also helps if you have a very unique name, which I don’t unfortunately.  I should have changed it to something else, but like Ned Ulaby.

Len Sipes:  Joe.

Laura Sullivan:  Or, you know,  Snika Verache or Kojima.

Len Sipes:  Yes, yes, yes.

Laura Sullivan:  It’s always helpful to have a really great name.  You know, Yuki Naguchi, which, she sits next to me, and I always tell her, she’s very fortunate to have a great NPR name.  I do not.  I have a very standard Irish name, but I guess it was okay.

Len Sipes:  But you come from a wonderful investigative background.  You did a lot of stuff with the Baltimore Sun.  You did a lot of stuff in terms of national stories that got a lot of attention, and this is Mr. Marina we’re talking about.  He brought you, he brings you over and so you go through this process, and at what point do you feel accepted by the NPR staff?

Laura Sullivan:  It took about a year, and I remember it took a long time because the structure of print stories is so different, and I had done print for ten years, and it’s – you go out on to a story, and you know before you even walk into the door how your story is going to be structured, how you’re going to start.  What’s the middle? What’s the end?  You know what quotes you’re looking for.  You hear that quote, you’re like, “Okay.  Check mark in my head, done.”  I don’t even need to interview this person anymore.  You have half written the story on your way back to the office, and because you’ve just done it, it’s just so routine, and so I got to print, and it was a complete – the stories are on their heads, you know?  There’s a nut graph in a print story which is the intro, and it confused me to all end, and it took me a long time to just – I felt like a basic reporter again.

Len Sipes:  Sure.

Laura Sullivan:  Trying to figure out, what is the beginning, middle, and end of how to tell this story, and I remember some of the best advice I got from an editor was just get out of the way of your tape.  Find your best tape, what is the most interesting thing something said to you, and get out of the way.

Len Sipes:  Uh-huh.

Laura Sullivan:  You know, don’t try to write around it and everything.  So that was helpful, but I remember about a year, I had been at NPR at about a year, and we were having sort of one of our national desk conferences, and a reporter named Robert Smith was doing a segment on how to make the best use of your tape, and I said, “Well, I’m sort of new at radio.” and he said, “Enough with the new.  I now anoint you a radio reporter.”  So from there on out, I’m like, all right, I’m no longer a former, a rookie, a reformed print reporter.

Len Sipes:  Before getting into the jist of the program, I do want to ask: Does everybody over at NPR pause right before they say anything?

Laura Sullivan:  A little bit.

Len Sipes:  Laura.  How are you today?

Laura Sullivan:  I know.

Len Sipes:  This is NPR.

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly.  It has to – you know, we don’t want to – we don’t ever want to upset people, you know, we like to keep it very calm, very civilized.  We like to take it slow.  It’s the NPR way. We call it Minnesota nice.

Len Sipes:  Minnesota nice.  Garrison Keillor would have appreciated that.

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly.

Len Sipes:  Okay, so at the beginning of the program, I said that it’s my contention that coverage of crime and criminal justice issues has declined.  National Public Radio has always made crime and criminal justice issues a priority.  First of all, do you buy into my contention that crime and criminal justice issues?  I mean it’s NPR, CBS, and I’d be hard pressed to go beyond that in terms of maybe Christian Science Monitor.  Maybe papers like the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, are leading the charge, but everybody else seems to have backed of crime and criminal justice issues, so would you agree?

Laura Sullivan:  I think that’s absolutely true, and I think that that’s really just more of the symptoms of the decline of the newspaper industry.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  You know, 10, 15, years ago, there were beats all over the country that covered crime as a topic.

Len Sipes:  Yep.

Laura Sullivan:  Not as a breaking news issue.

Len Sipes:  Yep.

Laura Sullivan:  And that all has gone by the wayside because nobody can afford it anymore.  Nobody can forward to have a reporter specializing in this topical area.

Len Sipes:  A 25, 30 percent reduction in the news staffs across the board.

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly.

Len Sipes:  In the last ten years.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  So the news organizations can no longer afford to have specialists.

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly.  Especially not a specialist that – they have police reporters, but they’re so under staffed that the police reporter are covering the breaking daily crime news.

Len Sipes:  Yes.

Laura Sullivan:  And so are television reporters.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And then when crime gets above that and reaches the national news, it’s a crime event.  It’s like, you know, the Casey Anthony trial.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  It’s an actual crime thing that happened.  It’s not, it’s very hard to cover it as a topical area where you’re looking at trends in crime, why things are did – why society is doing it this way or that way, why prisons are going this way or that way.

Len Sipes:  And much of it is entertainment.

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly.

Len Sipes:  And so who out there is taking a hard long look at the criminal justice system.  I mean very few people are doing it.

Laura Sullivan:  Criminologists.

Len Sipes:  Well, criminologists, yes, but, I mean, NPR is doing it, so the question becomes why.

Laura Sullivan:  Why?  Well, I mean NPR had the money to do it because of a large grant from the Joan Kroc Foundation, which created this beat, actually for NPR.

Len Sipes:  Okay.

Laura Sullivan:  So when I came to NPR, I actually applied for this crime and justice beat.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And because it was new, you could kind of make it what you wanted to make it.

Len Sipes:  Uh-huh.

Laura Sullivan:  And I knew from the very beginning that I did not want to run around the country and cover the Casey Anthony trial.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  Or this crazy thing, you know, drowning of whatever – mother drowns kids.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  I didn’t want to cover anything like that, or the Michael Jackson trial, or just, you know.

Len Sipes:  Right, right, right.

Laura Sullivan:  The stuff.  I wanted to do sort of the issues, the things that I found interesting.  The things that made me curious.  Why do we do it this way?  Why is it happening this way?

Len Sipes:  But even though NPR had the funding, NPR had to make a decision somewhere along the line that this was a very basic issue.

Laura Sullivan:  It was important.

Len Sipes:  Important to all Americans.  I mean we are talking about, in essence, what the criminal justice system does, has an impact on everybody.

Laura Sullivan:  Right.

Len Sipes:  In terms of their public safety, in terms of their personal freedoms, in terms of the Constitution itself.

Laura Sullivan:  Right.

Len Sipes:  That’s why I’m astounded to see the decline in crime and criminal justice, but somewhere along the line, NPR, regardless as to the funding.

Laura Sullivan:  They chose this.

Len Sipes:  As to the funding source, they had, yes, this is an important issue to cover.

Laura Sullivan:  Right, well it was just a bucket of money, and they got to choose what they wanted, what beats they wanted to create, and they created a business beat, and they created another arts desk reporter, and somebody – it was – they’re gone now, but the people at the time there said, you know, for this fifth beat that we have, we want to do crime and justice, and it’s funny, outside the prison they call it crime and justice, but inside the building, I’m the police and prisons report.

Len Sipes:  Police and prisons report.  Well that harkens back to your Baltimore Sun days.

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly it really does, and for them, I mean, I think it was NPR’s answer to – I think that they say, well look, we’re not going to do the CNN or the – we’re not going to do sort of this large sensational crime drama type of stories.  What can we do instead?  And that’s why they created crime and justice because they decided it could be a good topic, you know, it could be interesting and fruitful.

Len Sipes:  It is something that affects every human being.

Laura Sullivan:  Everybody.

Len Sipes:  In the United States.

Laura Sullivan:  And that is the hardest thing to do with this beat.  Is you have to – the problem covering crime and justice, and I think this answers a little bit of your question is that, – for a reporter, it’s very easy to do.  I get pitches all the time, you know, we’re doing under water basket weaving in the prison and everybody’s reformed.  You should come do a feature about it, or we’re doing an art project in this thing, and it’s helping all the people make their lives better.

Len Sipes:  Uh-huh.

Laura Sullivan:  And the problem is that the public says, responds to that as often, why are you?  Why are we spending tax payer money on this?  How is this affecting me?  How is this?  This doesn’t have any effect on my life.  Why do we even care about people in prison?  And you always have to bring it back to this idea that most of these people are getting out.  This is your tax payer dollars, how do you want them used?  How do you want people to be rehabilitated?  Do you want people to be rehabilitated?  How?  And you have to remind people all the time that crime as a whole effects everything, and how we spend taxpayer dollars on criminal justice effects everybody.

Len Sipes:  Or I get back to the constitutional issue, I mean I’ve been a former police officer.  I’ve spent six years in law enforcement, and I always can maintain, contend that there’s nothing more dangerous than a bored young cop.  I mean we are talking about our basic liberties.

Laura Sullivan:  Right.

Len Sipes:  So it goes beyond the crime issue.  It gets into a larger issue, a comprehensive issue about crime and criminal justice, but some of the stuff that I take a look at in National Public Radio, I’ve worked with you in the past year on burglaries.  Okay burglary, everybody is concerned about burglaries, so that’s almost a given, but let me go over some of the other stories.  The jail burden.  The US keeps jails stuffed with inmates.  Doubts rise in 1972, Angola prison murder, rape cases on Indian lands go uninvestigated, thousands of prisoners in solitary confinement.  These are extremely minute, very probing, very thoughtful issues that do not apply to a lot of people, and I imagine somewhere along the line folks at National Public Radio are saying to themselves, wait a minute, okay so fine.  We’re going to – I’m not saying that rape cases on Indian lands going uninvestigated is not important, but it doesn’t apply to 98 percent of our listeners.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah, I mean there’s always going to be some of that.  I mean there is some of that, but for the most part, if you – I mean what I look for – I think there’s a lot of trust.  You know at some point they trust you that whatever you’re going after isn’t going to be a complete dud, and if it is, I kill it long before it ever gets to the airway, so they know that there’s something about it that’s interesting.  There’s something about it that is – that should have other people in society care about it.  The rape on Indian – this is one in three Native American women are being raped on Native American lands, largely by people from outside the reservation.

Len Sipes:  Which is a tragedy.

Laura Sullivan:  Which is outrageous.

Len Sipes:  It is a profound tragedy.  It’s outrageous.  But NPR has a business sense.

Laura Sullivan:  It is outrageous, but what NPR is asking, and what I, as a reporter, is asking is not just to say this is happening, but why is this happening?  Who needs to be held to account?  Who is responsible for this happening?  And in that particular case, it was the lack of the federal government to prosecute cases because only they can prosecute cases.  So there was somebody responsible, and when you elevate the story from this is happening, or this exists, to why is this happening? and who is responsible for it? and what should tax payers know about how their federal government is responding to this atrocity?  That makes the story.  It elevates it to something that everybody go, that’s an outrage, and I’m kind of mad that this isn’t being taken care of.

Len Sipes:  And these stories by the way, 10, 20, years ago, that would have been filled with the CBS news and NBC, and Christian Science Monitor, and New York Times.

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly.

Len Sipes:  These are the stories that were pretty much run of the mill stories, these hard hitting investigative stories at NPR, and I think CBS are probably the only two that really – Christian Science Monitor really picking up.  You just don’t see it anymore.

Laura Sullivan:  You don’t see it anymore.  And the beauty about NPR, because we’re not covering crime on a daily basis, is that we can go deep.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And that’s – I mean you can’t do that if you’re trying to cover crime on top of all that.

Len Sipes:  We’re halfway through the program.  Very, very quickly.  Our guest today is Laura Sullivan.  She is a national investigative correspondent for National Public Radio.  Again, she’s been with NPR since 2004.  Over the years her work has been honored.  She has two Peabody Awards and two Columbia University Silver Batons for her reporting.  WWW.NPR.ORG, WWW.NPR.ORG.  Laura so we go into some of these others.  I must, again, get the same philosophy, I mean as people in solitary confinement, I would imagine if we ask the average American how much do you care about the fact that there’s an inordinate amount of people spending time in solitary confinement?  They’re going to say, I don’t care.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah, not my problem.

Len Sipes:  Not my problem.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  So why does NPR choose that issue?

Laura Sullivan:  That’s the hurdle?  Well that’s – I mean I make a pitch for it.

Len Sipes:  That’s intriguing.

Laura Sullivan:  I make a pitch to my editors the same way I make a pitch to the public, and I say, 95 percent of the people in solitary confinement right now are going to be released into the public one day.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  What quality of person do you want being released into the public one day, so that’s why we want examined, exactly what was happening in solitary confinement.

Len Sipes:  Uh-huh.

Laura Sullivan:  When I first told my editor that I wanted to do a three part series on bail bonding in the United States.

Len Sipes:  Yeah, that’s the other one.

Laura Sullivan:  He said you’re insane.  We’re not doing this.  This is crazy.

Len Sipes:  Okay, well – now that’s the conversation I’m looking for because the average person will say, I don’t care if they get out?  Why would I care?

Laura Sullivan:  Well, and so I, I had to tell him what I had just learned half an hour earlier, and I said, do you know that if you get picked up and you hire a bail bondsman, you don’t get your money back even if you show up for your court?  And he said, “I’d no idea.” and I said, “I didn’t either.  Isn’t that crazy?”  I had no idea how this worked, and then, “Do you know that it’s this multibillion dollar lobbying effort that keeps the system in place.  That is not in the best interest of tax payers?”

Len Sipes:  And it’s crushing in the budgets of county and city governments throughout the country, and there’s a whole mess of people there who could be safely released on their own recognizance or through pretrial supervision as we do here in DC.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  So it becomes, again, a Constitutional issue.

Laura Sullivan:  Exactly.

Len Sipes:  And, again, the philosophy of what you take from the poor, people caught up in the criminal justice system that can apply to you as well.  What you take from them, you take from everybody.

Laura Sullivan:  Well, I mean this, exactly.  I mean for me, this – that whole story idea.  They always – these story ideas come from the strangest places.  They’re always the last places you expect, but I was at a conference with criminologists at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, actually just right down the street.  It was mind numbing.  It was so boring, and I was sitting there, and they were talking about crime trends, I mean it was just really – and they had this coffee break and the Director of the Pretrial Justice Institutes came up to me and said “Hey, are you the one from NPR?” and that always makes me really nervous because I never know what’s coming next, I’m like, Oh, no –

Len Sipes:  Yeah.  You know you’re going to get a pitch.  Here comes the pitch.

Laura Sullivan:  Do they hate NPR?  Do they like NPR?  You just never know what’s coming, and –

Len Sipes:  My check bounced for the pledge.  What do I do about it?

Laura Sullivan:  Or, you know, they’re a liberal left wing, bla, bla, bla, and you have to, you know, answer all that, but he said, “I really think you need to do a story about the bail bonding industry in the United States.”

Len Sipes:  Uh-huh.

Laura Sullivan:  And he starts going off on this whole thing about the percentage of costs per inmate, and the – and I looked at him, and I said, you know I work for National Public Radio, right?

Len Sipes:  And he said, “No, no, I really, really, mean it.  It’s a really good story, and he’s like look, I think if you looked at it, you’d find, if you crunch all the numbers that this is costing tax payers like 8 billion dollars a year.”

Len Sipes:  Oh, yeah.

Laura Sullivan:  And I looked at him and I said.  “Hmm.  Let’s go to lunch.”  So we went to lunch and he, you know, explained his sort of perspective on bail bonding.

Len Sipes:  But to those of us in the criminal justice system, we understand both the philosophical, the criminological points that you are making throughout these reports.  Extraordinarily well-done, extraordinarily well thought out.  They have applications to everybody, but I’m not quite sure everybody realizes it at first brush.

Laura Sullivan:  No, no, no.

Len Sipes:  And I – again I go back to NPR, like any other media entity, has a business case.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  And they want to attract as many as listeners as humanly possible.

Laura Sullivan:  That’s true, that’s true.

Len Sipes:  And somebody out there is going to go, when they first hear about bail, they’re going to say, “Okay, what?”

Laura Sullivan:  They’re like my editor.  What?  They hear Robert saying.  We have 20-minute story coming out on bail?  People were like, that’s insane.  I don’t want to hear 20 minutes on bail.  What’s there to know about bail?

Len Sipes:  What’s there to know about bail?  Keep the bad guys in.  Give them a high bail, and –

Laura Sullivan:  don’t worry about it.

Len Sipes:  Then don’t worry about them.

Laura Sullivan:  What’s the problem?

Len Sipes:  What’s the problem?  But again, it has a huge fiscal ramifications for cities and counties, and it’s only in the last ten years or so that all of us within the criminal justice system, all government agencies have had to reduce our amount of spending, have we taken a hard look in terms of who we’re keeping and why.

Laura Sullivan:  Right.

Len Sipes:  And those constitutional and philosophical questions come up, so it is a public safety issue.  It is a fiscal issue.  It is a Constitutional issue.  Again – which is what you guys do, which is why it leads me to the next stories about doubts rise about 1972 Angola prison murder.  Now the story weaves this wonderful tale of Angola and the prison and how it’s in the deep South, and it’s huge, and it’s lush, and it’s a prison industry, and it’s in the middle of nowhere, and inmates basically have run that prison for years, and it’s not just a story about a homicide.  It’s a story about corrections in America.

Laura Sullivan:  It’s a story about corrections in America.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And it’s a story about corrections in the South.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And a lot of, sort of the racial turmoil that, you know, tainted all – most Southern prisons for decades.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And they’re just sort of now coming out of.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  I mean, even now, Angola, the officers are largely white and the inmates are very – almost entirely African American.

Len Sipes:  But that’s not uncommon in many jurisdictions.

Laura Sullivan:  It’s true.  That’s true.

Len Sipes:  Especially those on the East Coast.

Laura Sullivan:  But they have a very, very difficult racial history at Angola that they’re sort of trying to overcome, and this murder of a white prison guard by allegedly by a group of Black Panther activists , African-Americans, was very telling of this transformation for this prison and what it had gone through, and the fact that there are a lot of questions about whether or not the two inmates in this story actually did it?

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  And they had been held in solitary confinement at this prison.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  For 36 years.

Len Sipes:  Right.  So it was not a story ostensively about an Angola prison murder.

Laura Sullivan:  No.

Len Sipes:  It was a story about corrections in America.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  In the south.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  With all the racial issues attached to it, with the solitary confinement issues attached to it.  I mean it was a profoundly moving story about much larger issues than one homicide, but then again, that’s how NPR advertises it, is that, as, you know, we’re going to take a look at a 1972 murder in a prison in the deep South and the average person is sitting there going, and that means what to me?

Laura Sullivan:  Why do I care?

Len Sipes:  But it tells – I mean it’s a transformational story about all these larger issues we’re talking about, and what I would imagine that is why you pick these stories.

Laura Sullivan:  Right.

Len Sipes:  Because it’s not the narrow issue of women on an Indian reservation being raped, and people, specifically from outside the Indian reservation, are getting away with it?  It’s a larger issue about rape in America.

Laura Sullivan:  Right, and the lack of prosecution.

Len Sipes:  It’s a larger issue about corrections, about the lack of prosecutions and the lack of concern on the part of the criminal justice system.

Laura Sullivan:  Right.

Len Sipes:  And what are we doing in corrections, and are we Constitutional? and are we moral? and by the way, race filters into this, and you have to examine race.  I mean these are the larger issues.  I’m not quite sure the average person sitting in their driveway, pulling into their driveway after a long drive home understands that when they hear a 1972 investigation of a –

Laura Sullivan:  Well, hopefully, if they get to the end of the story, they will get it.

Len Sipes:  Yes.

Laura Sullivan:  You know, they may not get it when Robert Siegel comes on and does the intro, but hopefully by the end, if we’ve done our jobs right, they understand that this is not just one little thing.  We’ve not just covering one crime or one particular case, but we’re actually looking at a larger issue that is interesting to humans.

Len Sipes:  Yes, yeah.

Laura Sullivan:  And to society, and how we interact with each other.

Len Sipes:  How does this impact you, personally Laura?  I mean we were joking before the beginning of the program that many of the crime reporters that I knew years ago were hard-bitten, two-fisted, beer-drinking, foul-mouthed, cigarette-smoking, you know, they were part of that life-style, they’re cynical, they viewed the word cynically.

Laura Sullivan:  I know a lot of them.

Len Sipes:  They view us in government cynically.  You know, you don’t investigate figure skating champions who come through endless adversity and win the big figure skating championship.

Laura Sullivan:  No, unless they’re a victim of a crime.

Len Sipes:  You’re dealing with the Angola murder of 1972, bail, rape on Indian reservations.  I mean you deal with these topics.  Has it affected you personally?

Laura Sullivan:  A lot of people tell me that they think that my job is really depressing.  I actually don’t agree with them.  I think that my job is very dramatic
[24:00]

and I find I get very emotionally invested in these stories, and I throw sort of my whole sense of self into them, into trying to figure them out and trying to understand them, and for me, I mean the – yeah, there times I just spent a year doing investigation in South Dakota and a spent long time, many, many, afternoons on the couches of grandmothers, crying.  It was a story about foster care, and things that were happening in that arena, and I think that those are the times when it just weighs on you personally.

Len Sipes:  Uh-huh.

Laura Sullivan:  Because you go to bed at night, and you think about them, and you think about how much pain and suffering some people are in, and it’s hard.  It’s hard to put that aside and still sort of get up and do your job, and I think that’s where the cynicism comes from.

Len Sipes:  You’re a mother of two young kids, and you’re married to a reporter, Washington Post reporter.

Laura Sullivan:  Yes.

Len Sipes:  And somebody who I know well.

Laura Sullivan:  Yes.

Len Sipes:  Hi.  And I mean you’re away on these assignments.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  And you’re not going to Jamaica.  You’re not going to Hawaii.  You’re going to –

Laura Sullivan:  I’m going to the middle of South Dakota in the middle of winter.

Len Sipes:  And I’ve been there.  I know how desolate, and I know how isolated it is.  It’s not the garden spot of the world, although both of us find it enchanting and found the Native Americans there enchanting in many ways, and we could go on forever talking about those stories, but it is tough.

Laura Sullivan:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  You’ve picked tough topics.  You’ve picked a tough beat that takes you away from home for good amounts of time.

Laura Sullivan:  Yes.

Len Sipes:  And that has to have an impact on you personally.

Laura Sullivan:  Oh, yeah, absolutely, and I think about that every time I get on a plane, which I try not to do too frequently, but I do a lot, and that’s because the stories have to mean something to me.  They have to be important enough for me to want to effect change, to want to share them with the world, to give up – sort of how hard it is on your family to make that happen.

Len Sipes:  Sure.

Laura Sullivan:  Luckily because it’s not a daily beat, it allows me to be here.

Len Sipes:  Right.

Laura Sullivan:  Day in and day out, and sort of picking up the bulk of the weight when I am here, but then once – I would say I travel, well it depends, it goes in spurts, but if, you know, when I do have to hit the road, and then I’m gone, hopefully that makes up for the –

Len Sipes:  But you haven’t become cynical and morose like the rest of us who have surrounded ourselves with these issues for the last 30 years, 40 years.

Laura Sullivan:  Cynical maybe, morose, no.

Len Sipes:  Okay.

Laura Sullivan:  But sometimes cynical.

Len Sipes:  Is being a woman an advantage or a disadvantage?  I apologize for asking.

Laura Sullivan:  Oh, it’s both.  No, I appreciate the question.

Len Sipes:  The criminal justice system is male dominated.

Laura Sullivan:  It can be both.

Len Sipes:  And sometimes I get the sense of Laura Sullivan walking into a criminal justice system that’s 85, 90 percent male.

Laura Sullivan:  Lots of prisons.

Len Sipes:  Lots of prisons, lots of cops, lots of prosecutors, lots of tough guys.  Does that have an impact?

Laura Sullivan:  I find it most in sort of the prison setting, and mostly with the inmates, and it’s either, you know, it’s either helpful because you don’t remind the inmate of the people that are looking over their shoulder, and you don’t seem like you’re one of them.  One of the hardest things when you walk into a prison is that you want the trust of the prison administrators, and you also want the trust of the inmates, and trying to establish both is almost impossible.

Len Sipes:  Uh-huh.

Laura Sullivan:  So, on the one hand it’s helpful sometimes to be a woman.  On the other hand, it’s terrible because you can run into the wrong inmates, and they can make a good five minutes miserable for you.

Len Sipes:  Sure.

Laura Sullivan:  And so you just say, next, can we see a different inmate.  So, you know, it has its advantages and disadvantages.

Len Sipes:  Is the criminal justice system any more open, any more transparent? or are we still the same sloppy, Oh, my God there’s a reporter at my doorstep, let’s run for the hills.

Laura Sullivan:  I mean there are few –

Len Sipes:  Have we gotten any better in the last ten years?

Laura Sullivan:  There are a few agencies across the board where I just think the world of, where I just think that you guys get it.  You are one of them.  I’m not just saying that because I’m sitting in your studio right now, that, where I just think, I wish that there were more agencies like you guys that understood that we’re not the devil.  We’re not coming in to do the hit job.  At least give us a chance to prove that we’re not coming in to do the hit job.

Len Sipes:  Right, right.

Laura Sullivan:  I’m sure there are some out there, but give us a chance, the opportunity to come in, and then there are others that are just the polar opposite, and I would say, I would say it’s actually worse than it used to be.

Len Sipes:  Really.

Laura Sullivan:  And I –

Len Sipes:  Seriously.

Laura Sullivan:  Yes, I really do.

Len Sipes:  And all this day and age of transparency, and social media it’s got –

Laura Sullivan:  Because I think that’s why.

Len Sipes:  Really?

Laura Sullivan:  That’s why.  I think it’s instilled a lot of fear, and I think that there’s a real fear to allow – people do not see any benefit to allowing a reporter into a prison.  You have to really – there’s no premise that yes, you can come in unless we decide not to.  It’s no you can’t unless you can prove that there’s a reason why we should do it, and you can argue the public interest and that these are behind closed doors, and that the public is paying for this, can we see what’s happening? and still you run up against this idea that whatever it is you’re after, it can be no good, and so we are just trying to make your life as miserable as possible.

Len Sipes:  I’ve got 30 seconds before we have to close.  The future of NPR crime coverage, anything you want to share with the rest of us in the next third seconds?

Laura Sullivan:  I think it looks really good.  I mean this is a priority for NPR.  This is something that the editors are interested in.  I’m interested in, and our listeners have really responded to.  So it’s going to keep going strong.

Len Sipes:  Laura Sullivan, an NPR investigative correspondent.  She, again, joined in 2004, has a whole slew of awards.  If you’ve ever had the opportunity to go on the website, WWW.NPR.ORG and listen to Laura’s stuff, she weaves a story and information as beautifully as anybody I’ve ever heard.  Winner of two Peabody awards and  two Columbia University Silver Batons.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety.  We appreciate your time, interest, your phone calls, your emails, your comments, and your criticisms, and I want everybody to have yourselves a very, very, pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

Share

Social Media for Law Enforcement-DC Public Safety-213,000 Requests a Month

Welcome to DC Public Safety – radio and television shows on crime, criminal offenders and the criminal justice system.

See http://media.csosa.gov for our television shows, blog and transcripts.

This radio program is available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2010/02/social-media-for-law-enforcement-dc-public-safety-213000-requests-a-month/

We welcome your comments or suggestions at leonard.sipes@csosa.gov or at Twitter at http://twitter.com/lensipes.

– Audio begins –

Len Sipes: From my microphones in downtown Washington, DC, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes, and today’s program is about social media in law enforcement, how the law enforcement community and eventually, hopefully, the entire criminal justice community will take on social media. What is social media? It’s websites, it’s blogs, it’s Twitter, it’s Facebook, it’s radio, it’s television. It’s basically a way of communicating with citizens. It’s a way of making sure that citizens and your criminal justice entity or your police department is having a meaningful conversation. You’re giving them interesting stuff to listen to or watch, and they’re giving you good information in return about what’s going on in their communities or how your police department or criminal justice agency can do a better job. Our guests today are Dan Alexander. He is Chief of Police of the Boca Raton, Florida, Police Department, and I’ll be giving out everything that Dan does in his website in a couple of seconds. Laurie Stevens, she is the Chair of Web Design for the New England Institute of Art, but interestingly enough, she’s putting on a conference, Social Media in Law Enforcement, the SMILE Conference on April 7, 8, and 9 in Washington, DC, but before we get into our program, the usual commercial, we are way beyond 200,000 request in the monthly basis for DC Public Safety Radio Television blog and transcripts, media.csosa.com. We are incredibly appreciative of all the e-mails that you get back to us with the comments that you get back to us in terms of our products. If you want to get back in touch with me directly, it’s Leonard L-E-O-N-A-R-D.sipes S-I-P not T but P E-S @C-S-O-S-A.gov or you can follow me via Twitter at twitter/lenssipes. One word. Back to our guest, Dan Alexander, Chief of Police, Boca Raton, and Laurie Stevens, New England Institute of Art, the person in charge of the SMILE conference. Welcome to DC Public Safety.

Laurie Stevens: Thanks, Len.

Len Sipes: Laurie, we’re going to go with your first. Now, what does the Chair of Web Design of the New England Institute of Art? You get this hoitsy-toitsy sense of free flowing artist, mixed up with the mundane, everyday world of law enforcement. How did you get involved with working with law enforcement?

Laurie Stevens: Well, it’s really the other half of that title is Web Design and Interactive Media. Certainly social media is part of that interactive media world, and so as part of my job at the college, I’m certified in social media as a strategist and I make it part of my work to stay on top of those things, and then I have been working with law enforcement just with a couple of departments that I have been friends with for a number of years and it just kind of grew from there. People started noticing the work that we were doing, and all of a sudden I was doing more and more, and then I got on Twitter and all of a sudden I was kind of catapulted into this arena and decided to go with it, and that was some months back, so now it’s just such a huge part of my life. But the two worlds come together right at the intersection with social media.

Len Sipes: And Dan, now, let’s see. You have done everything. I’m very impressed. www.bocaviper.com is your website. Now you do Twitter, you do Facebook, you do MySpace, you do interactive mapping, you do e-mail alerts, you do offender notifications, you do a television show, you do a blog. That is just both admirable and interesting, but you say the key issue here is not the fact that you’re doing social media; it’s what you’re accomplishing for the citizens of Boca Raton.

Dan Alexander: Absolutely. I think you can’t forget your fundamental mission whenever you decide to take something new on like social media, and that mission is to be a community policing organization, community-oriented in the way we approach our business, so keeping that in mind, it’s really a matter of connecting and how you connect with people and how you push information. I think there’s some other interesting parts that also fall in, in terms of how the media covers, how media has changed. I think that social media falls right in line with our orientation to be better connected, to be more transparent, and to insure that we’re getting the word out.

Len Sipes: Now you know it’s interesting because this can be manipulative. I do social media here, radio, television, blog, and transcript at DC Public Safety, and it’s to the point where you can control your own media to a large degree. You’re no longer dependent upon mainstream media. You’re no longer dependent upon the newspaper and the television stations and the radio stations to get word out to the public. You can do that at your time and at your leisure and at a pace that you control.

Dan Alexander: Yeah. What’s interesting about that is that when we started to do this, we had a media outlet come cover us and actually they quoted a professor that expressed concern that we would be putting our spin on the news, and really at first we were taken aback, but the issue really is adding another layer and I think that’s what we’ve tried to explain to people is that our test is not to try to replace traditional media as a source of information, but to add another layer such that people can get a different view or just fundamentally get the information because media is not covering nearly as much as it used to.

Len Sipes: Laurie, is there an issue where anybody should be concerned about it? We are under a real obligation to, when we use the social media channels, to talk about everything, warts and all, correct?

Laurie Stevens: Right. And I think, well, Dan’s point is, it’s what I love about the work he does. Initially he had this – I believe it was a television station he was saying, was taken aback by the fact that he was putting out his information himself, but he embraced that, and what he’s saying is its just one more layer. He’s not trying to replace the media; nobody really is. It’s just trying to get more information. When you think about it, the police departments have a lot of good information that the media just doesn’t want to cover. It’s just not worthy of the 6:00 news in their opinion. Another department I work with had, very early on when they went on Twitter for example, a citizen was surprised and commented, they didn’t know they had crime in their town because the cops were tweeting all night long and during the day of what they were coming across. So it really is expanding the amount of information that’s getting out to citizens in any community, so we’re fortunate enough to have this.

Len Sipes: The individual police officers were tweeting?

Laurie Stevens: Oh, yeah.

Len Sipes: That’s interesting.

Laurie Stevens: Dan, you’ve got some individual police officers tweeting, but I know of several departments that have police officers tweeting, and then in one case, we tweeted into the official police stream, the tweets of each officer as they tweet, and we put that right on their homepage. So the citizens can see that some of these officers are tweeting and maybe a photo of an arrest they made during the night, not any kind of confidential information, but if it was a bad DUI arrest and getting out those DUI messages time and time again, and the citizens are seeing this is happening in their own town the night before as opposed to maybe somewhere else where they think it doesn’t happen here, so they’re realizing this stuff does happen. It happens every single night right here where I live, and it really opens their eyes and ears to these messages.

Dan Alexander: I think that it raises some serious policy issues about how you approach media, and I think one of the distractions in the self media debate has been well, now we have to write a whole new policy on social media. I wouldn’t necessarily say that that’s not the case. I think that the way we recognize it is it’s another form of media, so the policies are going to be pretty consistent with the way we deal with the regular media, so definitely seeing some negative impacts of social media in some cases, but again, I think we just have to realize it’s media and our policies should be pretty consistent.

Laurie Stevens: But those negative impacts, Dan, wouldn’t you say that those negative things that you’re talking about would have happened or in the same way? In other words, these officers aren’t having to learn anything new in terms of how to be officers; they just have new tools.

Dan Alexander: Absolutely.

Laurie Stevens: If they’re going to do things that they probably shouldn’t be doing, they’re probably going to exercise that poor judgment in another way even without social media.

Dan Alexander: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a tool, and obviously many tools can be used properly or improperly.

Len Sipes: But the bottom line is that because we had sort of an esoteric conversation thus far, and my sense is that for the kids in the audience, and I’m being really stereotypical here because I know a 1000 times more about social media than my daughters, but for the kids out there, they’re going to say yeah, I understand intrinsically what it is that you’re saying. For the criminal justice community listening to this program, the bottom line is that you capture bad guys, you have conversations with the community that helps them, that makes them feel better about the police department, you accomplish operational objectives through social media, so this is, to you from what I understand, Dan, in terms of our conversation before the show, this is just as important to you as having a sufficient number of police cars. This is just as important to you as having radio communications between your dispatchers and your officers. This is just a tool to help lower crime rates and to get information to citizens so they can take their own action. This is an operational issue, right?

Dan Alexander: Absolutely. I think you look at it from that perspective and also from public relations and marketing perspective, and from the operational standpoint, I can think of two examples of how it’s had a direct impact, the first being a theft of a flat screen television out of the local mall. A video that we put online as part of our social media outreach and a witness picking up on the suspect in the video, and then passing that information along to us and us clearing a case and recovering property. Another instance from the intelligence perspective is a local criminal enterprise had taken root and their use of social media and using our resources and our investigators looking at their material, and without getting too much into it, developing information that was critical to developing a case on organized criminal enterprise, so those are two examples of how social media has a real impact in terms of law enforcement.

Len Sipes: We’re going to be having the Chief of the Community Oriented Policing Program from the U.S. Department of Justice on our air in a couple of weeks, and one of the reasons why he is coming in is for the very reasons that we’re talking about, that the more information that you get out to the community and the more interaction that you have, the more that they’re going to give to you in terms of your ability to keep them safe or solve crimes.

Dan Alexander: Absolutely. I think that’s the other part of it, is making the connection. I think if we’re brutally honest about our ability, we’re really the intervening variable. You have your community and the involvement of your citizens, and at the end the result is your quality of life and level of crime. We’re in the middle of that equation, and we’re absolutely dependent on a resident not only in terms of providing information on criminals, but also taking care of themselves. I think that the majority of us, unfortunately, have property crime to deal with and obviously violent crime, but typically property crime is the major portion of what we deal with and much of that can be prevented just by getting the right message out in terms of crime prevention, so there are so many different angles to the social media thing that are important in my mind.

Len Sipes: Go ahead, Laurie, please.

Laurie Stevens: I was just going to kind of piggyback on what he saying. I think in terms of sharing more information in both directions, a lot of what is happening here, and it’s getting back to the word social and social media, it’s the building of relationships and the building of trust between law enforcement and their community. Even though they’re still the cops and you’re still the citizen and they still have the authority, something else is happening in that whole area of trust in one another, and I think that is really key. It’s not very tangible, but that’s really key in why there’s more information going back and forth because there’s trust being built.

Len Sipes: Right. And whether it’s done electronically or whether it’s done face to face, the bottom line is trust. Trust gets you more information. It prompts the community to take greater action to protect themselves. I mean, it’s a win-win situation all around.

Laurie Stevens: Well, it’s absolutely going back to the beats, the community policing philosophy, in my mind. I’m not a cop and Dan will speak to that lots better than I will, but it’s really getting back to those relationships. With this technology, you can build more relationships faster.

Len Sipes: Now speaking of relationships, this question goes out to either one of you when I’m going to tie it into the conference, Social Media in Law Enforcement Conference. If people are interested in this, it’s April 7, 8, and 9 in Washington, DC. It’s called the SMILE Conference, Social Media in Law Enforcement, that’s how SMILE comes out. It’s theSMILEconference.com, so it’s www.theSMILEconference.com or http://theSMILEconference.com, April 7, 8, 9 in Washington, DC. Social Media in Law Enforcement. The reason I’m so enthused about this conference is the fact that it helps us talk to people in the criminal justice system and it helps us to promote social media because, again, I had this conversation with another national criminal justice organization this morning. People are simply wary of doing this. They’re afraid to do it because they live in sort of a protected bubble. They have this sense that the less news there is the better off for everybody, and that’s just the antithesis of what it is that we’re trying to do through social media, but that fear does exist within the criminal justice system, does it not? Either one of you.

Dan Alexander: Absolutely. Yeah. Obviously it’s changed and unknown and that’s a concern for people that like their world in order, but beyond that we are very secretive. Laurie knows that I wrote a piece early on, basically five or six barriers to law enforcement use of social media. It’s fast and we’re not. We obviously develop cases and move things along, and it takes time. Social media is immediate, so there are some barriers there. We are very cynical and protective, by nature, of our information, and so that works against us in that respect. We’re also suspect in terms of our relationships with people. I don’t want someone following me or being my friend or fan that I don’t know too well, because I like gathering intelligence on the people that I have relationships with if I’m thinking from a traditional police perspective, so there are a number of reasons why I think there hesitancy on our part to get involved.

But going back to what you said earlier, connecting electronically, it’s interesting about what we first got out there on Twitter in particular, we would get the feedback, Boca Police is following me – I guess I should slow down. Things like that that you know are out there that people are thinking. Or Boca Chief shows up as a follower, okay, it even makes people nervous to a certain extent, but I think it’s a great icebreaker. I really do. People see that you’re involved in this form. I think that they think more in terms of accessibility and the fact that we’re people too, so I think we’ve got to start turning some of that negative into positive.

Len Sipes: We’re more than halfway through the program. Our guests today are Dan Alexander, Chief of Police of Boca Raton, Florida. His website www.bocaviper.com, B-O-C-A-V-I-P-E-R, one word, dot com. Dan is involved in everything on the face of the earth – Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, interactive mapping, websites, e-mail alerts, offender notifications, TV shows, and a blog. Laurie Stevens is our other guest. She is with the New England Institute of Arts. She is Chair of Web Design in Social Media. She is putting on a conference called Social Media in Law Enforcement, the SMILE Conference. The website address is theSMILEconference.com, one word. So, www or http://theSMILEconference.com. All right. So we’re into the second half of the program. This is going by like wildfire. I think we need to move off of this fear thing because it’s interesting – so many individuals throughout the country, so many corporations are embracing social media wholeheartedly, and it’s become a huge part of what it is that they do and how they operate, but we in the criminal justice system just are, we’re just a bunch of, we’re a bit stodgy, and for an organization that has to communicate with a public, this is a fantastic way of doing it.

Laurie Stevens: It is fantastic and it’s inexpensive and it’s fast, and it’s like Dan said, cops aren’t exactly known for changing, yet this guy, Dan, had his own social media police, not an officer, a civilian, but a social media manager, over a year ago. I was listening to him and kind of chuckling thinking, he’s not all that afraid, because he’s out there really leading the pack. And to that point, I think that another officer friend of mine made the analogy that it’s like freight train and it isn’t about a [PH] decision anymore Len; it’s taken off. You’re either going to get hit by it or you’re going to get on and you’re going to ride it, or you’re going to wake up one day real surprised and wonder what happened and how did I lose control of this situation.

Len Sipes: I found a website, go ahead, please.

Laurie Stevens: No, I’m just saying that I think law enforcement, I don’t know about the criminal justice organizations as well as law enforcement, I think law enforcement isn’t that far behind other businesses. I really don’t. The ones I’m talking to, everybody’s interested in doing it. They are a little fearful, but they’re trying to figure out their way.

Len Sipes: I ran across the other night a website, Cops Who Blog. That’s part of the NING network, N-I-N-G, Cops Who Blog or Cops That Blog, I can’t remember, but I’ve been interacting with them in terms of my own promotional activities, and they’re really interesting, the conversations I’ve had with them and talking about some of the websites and some of the things that they’re doing. You’re right. There’s a lot of energy, but once again, and I don’t want to beat this horse to death, I do think that there is, and this is the conversation I had this morning, that folks are just reluctant. I was talking to some people in public relations a little while ago, and said, Leonard, I’m a dang gone good public affairs officer. I know how to talk to the media, I know all about my agency, I’m not friends but I have a good relationship with the folks in the media, I’m constantly available, and so I can do radio shows, I can do television shows, I can do talk radio, and I can write, and now, on top of everything I know how to do, now you want me to start producing radio shows, you want me to start doing websites, you want me to start doing blogs, you want me to start Twittering. Where does this begin and where does this end? His point was traditionally a public affairs officer had a set amount of skills and that’s all he or she had to worry about. Now those skill sets need to double or triple, and now their job has become much more complex and they’re not exactly hopping and skipping and smiling into the social media process because it’s a lot more work.

Dan Alexander: Yeah. Some of that can be shared, and we talked about this early on, that I’m fortunate to have a resource here that is involved in it and primarily is his job function, but I think that a lot of places also have to have policing officers and crime prevention officers or use their regular officers to get engaged, and there’s some risk involved, obviously, but again, I think in terms of return on investment, it’s huge. We talk about risk, and I mentioned in the ConnectedCops.net piece that I wrote for Laurie, there is a risk in ignoring social media. I’ve watched my colleagues try to shut off a particular outlet or media outlet in particular because they don’t like a story that was run, and then they go back again. Why? Because their constituents get their news from that outlet, so you have to be there and there’s a risk ignoring it. The fact of the matter is they’re talking about you out there. The question is whether you want to get engaged in the discussion or not.

Len Sipes: But isn’t that the bottom line to both of you? And Dan, you said it perfectly – the conversation is going on whether you engage that conversation or not, so if that conversation about your agency is going to take place, wouldn’t you like to be part of that conversation in a very meaningful way? And I’m not talking about a manipulative way. I’m not talking lying. I’m talking about a very honest, open approach to sharing information with the community. If that conversation is going to take place, why don’t you want to be part of it? That’s my question.

Dan Alexander: Absolutely. I don’t see how you can, you can’t avoid it. No.

Laurie Stevens: I think it’s a lost opportunity if you’re not engaging. You know, Len, back to that skill set that you mentioned; I really think it’s not that it’s more complicated. There’s a learning curve there, but once you get over it you’d use them. They feed each other. You can use them to talk to each other. You can use them to build upon one another, the tools that I’m talking about themselves. It’s really not that hard. This is lots easier than learning how to write copy for print and lots easier than producing a television show. Tweeting, Facebook, it’s not hard to learn. It’s just getting over that hump.

Len Sipes: Well, even putting up a website, though because it’s interesting. Just a couple of years ago, a website was a $20,000 to $30,000 proposition and that was serious money. With WordPress-based designs and you’re talking about $100 to buy a professional website. Now you still have to populate that website and you may pay somebody to set that website up for you, but you’re not talking about $20,000, $30,000, $40,000. You’re talking about a couple of hundred dollars.

Laurie Stevens: If that. If you can grab WordPress and find a seam that you like.

Len Sipes: It can be a lot less than that, yes.

Laurie Stevens: It can be. It can be. It’s just not that hard, and not only that, but you don’t need a professional to update it. With WordPress and tools like that, [PH] Jumla, you can get right in and any amateur can get in and daily edit their content. It’s just not that hard.

Len Sipes: Right, but it does take time. So the point is to our brethren within the criminal justice community, it’s not that expensive. It’s not that risky. The conversation’s going on about you anyway, so why not get involved and you can accomplish operational goals. We were able to convince 530 criminal offenders with warrants to voluntarily surrender in Washington, DC, and we did it principally through social media. We did it principally through social media, so that’s my biggest law enforcement / criminal justice example of how you can accomplish operational objectives through social media.

Laurie Stevens: Well, there you go. Talk about your ROI right there. What would that have cost you without however you did that?

Len Sipes: Well, when I was an ex-cop out there serving warrants, they would give me a stack of warrants on the midnight shift and if I served one a week I was lucky, and here it is 530 people voluntarily surrendering to a church.

Dan Alexander: You go back to what you were talking about earlier, too, in terms of developing the informational content. You’re doing it anyway. We did the traditional release. It’s really just a matter of either copying, pasting, or simply changing it up a little bit to fit the format that’s appropriate for the social media outlet. Yeah, I think there is going to be a little bit more time and effort involved, but the payoff is significant. There’s no doubt about it.

Len Sipes: And it’s not just the younger individuals. I read a piece yesterday of how the younger people are bailing out of Facebook and going back to MySpace because they’re tired of their parents and grandparents being on MySpace and trying to be friends with them.

Laurie Stevens: I wouldn’t know, Len. My kids won’t friend me.

Len Sipes: My kids did so reluctantly, Laurie.

Dan Alexander: Yeah, well, that’s why a lot of parents got into it. They wanted to see what was going on, and you just look at the sheer numbers of people that are in social media. That’s the other concern that probably sits out there, is that it’s just a niche group – well, no, everyone is in social media and it’s where people are getting their content. The point I made, too, on the piece is that you talk about community – you’ll go visit someone for a Crime Watch meeting in a neighborhood, why not go into social media and visit the community that exists there. It really just doesn’t make sense.

Len Sipes: Instead of talking to 30 people, why don’t you talk to tens of thousands of people? It’s the same message. It’s the same effort.

Dan Alexander: Yeah. I think the challenge, a couple of challenges that I think about with this thing is are we reaching the right audience? I think that’s a concern in terms of trying to make it local. I know we need to do a better job of ensuring that we’re achieving a connection with our local group. The other part of it that isn’t so much of a concern, I think it’s an opportunity, is looking at how we can develop some of our own social media tools to ensure that we’re creating virtual communities within our jurisdiction. I think those are a couple of things that sit out there right now that are challenges, but not negatives. I think it’s something that is just going to involve a little more time and effort on our part.

Len Sipes: Well, you can always make fun of us northerners sitting in the snow while you’re all sitting down there in the warm weather.

Laurie Stevens: Don’t encourage him – he does that.

Dan Alexander: Absolutely.

Laurie Stevens: And he does it over Twitter, Len.

Len Sipes: You can have that cathartic relationship with your community. Laurie, you’re up there in Boston, right?

Laurie Stevens: Yes, I am.

Len Sipes: Yeah. And believe it or not, Baltimore and Washington, our metropolitan area, got more snow than any other major city this year. So Buffalo and Minneapolis, you’re now taking a backseat to DC and Baltimore. Any final thoughts? We have a minute left.

Dan Alexander: No. I would just say that we’ve been real excited about the feedback we’ve gotten and the tangible results that we’ve gotten from social media. I’m excited to see what the future holds. I think we’re still in law enforcement and in criminal justice on the front end of this thing, and I think it’s important for us through opportunities like the SMILE Conference to get together and see where we are, and see what we can do to improve our approach to community policing.

Len Sipes: Laurie, you got about 30 seconds. Laurie?

Laurie Stevens: No, just to piggyback on that – I think that law enforcement is, that adoption curve is just starting to turn up, and it’s just starting to really hit the masses. Not huge masses, but we have the early adopters like Dan and a few others, and now everyone else is seeing what they’re doing, seeing the successes that they’re having, and now is the time where everybody is really jumping onboard, and it’s going to get real exciting here.

Len Sipes: Well, in terms of size, I’m doing 2.5 million requests a year.

Laurie Stevens: You are?

Len Sipes: Yes, and I’m spending less than $15,000 a year to do it, so the point is, is that this is powerful. People in the criminal justice system need to understand how powerful this is and how relatively inexpensive it is.

Dan Alexander: Absolutely.

Laurie Stevens: Well, I think we went a long way towards that today, I hope.

Len Sipes: Good. Our guests today, ladies and gentlemen, Dan Alexander, Chief of Police, Boca Raton, Florida. His Web address, www.bocaviper.com. Bocaviper is one word. Doing Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, interactive mapping, websites, e-mail alerts, offender notification, TV shows, blog, and just about everything else on the face of the Earth. I’m very, very impressed with Boca Raton and Dan Alexander from what I heard today. Laurie Stevens, the New England Institute of Art, Chair of Web Design and Social Media. She is putting on a conference, Social Media in Law Enforcement, the SMILE Conference in Washington, DC, on April 7, 8, and 9. This is the year 2010. The SMILE Conference is the address, theSMILEconference is all one word, dot com, and you can get information about that. Ladies and gentlemen, like I said at the beginning of the program, we continue to be really impressed by your letters and in some cases phone calls, even though I don’t give out my address, your comments to our comments box, which come in to about 10 a day, and some of your e-mails, feel free to share them. Some of them are about the show and some of them are not, and I do the best I can to answer those e-mails that aren’t about the show, and some are just downright tragic and we try to do our very best to help you with local resources and plug you in to those local resources. But in any event, we really appreciate your patronage and have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

– Audio ends –

Terms: social media, SMILE, Social Media in Law Enforcement, police, law enforcement

Share