Veteran Reporters Discuss Coverage of Crime

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.

Radio Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/?p=106

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

– Audio Begins –

Len Sipes: Hi, and welcome to D.C. public safety, I’m your host, Len Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, I think we’re going to have an extraordinarily interesting show today. We have Peter Hermann from the Baltimore Sun. Peter has been around the world, in the Jerusalem bureau for the Baltimore Sun, he’s a former police reporter, and now he writes a very interesting column almost on a daily basis for the Baltimore Sun, putting this whole crime issue, the issue of crime and justice in perspective. Also at our microphone, another veteran, 20 years of newspaper reporting, Robert Pierre. Robert Pierre with the Washington Post. And again, what Robert and Peter do, I think, ladies and gentlemen, is to try to take their work for their respective newspapers, and they’re trying to put this issue of crime and justice into context, and I think that that’s interesting, because I think it’s a dying art throughout the country, or not happening throughout the country, that we’re getting less and less good solid reporting and good solid information on what’s happening in the crime and the criminal justice issue, and to discuss this, what we have, along with Peter Hermann and Robert Pierre, and Peter and Robert, welcome to D.C. Public Safety.

Robert Pierre: Thank you.

Len Sipes: Guys, what about that? Both of you do an interesting column, both of you do what I think is a really unique, Peter, you write that, almost a daily blog, in terms of trying to put the crime problem within the City of Baltimore within context, where most newspapers in this country are giving it 4-5 column inches in terms of a particular crime or a crime problem, and they’re putting it on the 4th page of the local section, it seems as if newspapers have almost given up, and here you are, doing almost a daily analysis of crime within a particular neighborhood in Baltimore city. Do you think what you’re doing is unique and different?

Peter Hermann: I don’t know if it’s unique and different. I think papers have done a terrific job over the years, certainly covering breaking crime, and what I’ve always been criticized, probably for covering crime too much, putting it on the front page too much, it’s easy to sensationalize some of the stories that go on in a big city on a daily basis, and certainly, I think if you look at some of the crime that both the daily breaking crime, both the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun, other papers do, it’s not even a fraction of the crime that’s occurring.

Len Sipes: I understand that, but crime and criminal justice issues are huge issues in the life of any city. I mean, in some cases, they define a city, and Baltimore is certainly one of the cities where the crime issue has defined it, so if you have a crime issue that’s defining a metropolitan area, does it do it justice to put stories on the inside of the paper?

Peter Hermann: I think it does and it doesn’t, and I think it all depends on the story, and I think we’re all tired of writing and probably seeing some of the same stories that we’ve seen over the last 10-20 years, and you start to wonder how it’s came to be this way, how it can be fixed, and while we’ve done a good job of putting sort of the daily breaking stories on in the paper, one of the challenges is to figure out new ways of covering some of the same old issues, trying to answer why they’re the same old issues. They shouldn’t be the same issues. We should have figured this out 20-30 years ago. We haven’t, obviously. It is, I think, a point of my frustration of being a crime reporter, and every six months, reading these crime statistic stories, which you quote the same people, and quote “crime is up,” it’s because more people are reporting it. Crime is down, the police have done a good job. You go out and call a few experts and you write a story, we’ve all done them, we’re all sick of them –

Len Sipes: 150,000 times, and the readers are probably tired of listening to them –

Peter Hermann: But this approach is trying to find a unique different way of covering some of the issues that we, a) always done, and other ones that we’ve missed, going into neighborhoods we haven’t gone into, giving voices to people who sometimes maybe get a sentence or two in a community meeting or a crime scene. I think residents all over, certainly Baltimore, the only time they ever see a Baltimore Sun reporter is on the other side of a crime scene tape –

Len Sipes: On the other side of the roped off area.

Peter Hermann: – and there are other, and they have issues that crime gets into everything. I was talking to a minister the other day in one of the communities in Baltimore, and yes he wants the kids off the street. Yes he wants loitering to stop. Yes, he wants to police to actually be more proactive and more aggressive in police neighborhoods. But he also wants more programs, and he’s talking about trying to help people get off drugs and get, of re-instilling values. He said, I’m tired of going out and telling the same kids every day to move their bicycle off my church parking lot, and eventually, now I’ve got kids selling drugs on the corner. And he was talking about values. And we don’t see that in newspapers too much, you don’t see people like that getting an extended voice through the blog, through the column, and it’s something that kinda fun –

Len Sipes: And that’s one of the reasons I like, I enjoy reading the column, because it puts it in context. We’re going to go over to Robert Pierre from the Washington Post, but also, for those people who want to get in touch with Peter Hermann, it’s peterhermann (Peter?) @baltsun – B-A-L-T-S-U-N – .com. Peter also has a blog at baltimoresun.com/crime, okay, blog at the blog at baltimoresun.com/crime. Robert Pierre. You’ve done some really interesting analytical pieces trying to give the citizens of the Washington D.C. Metropolitan area a taste for the reality of what we within the criminal justice system have to do. How are you allowed to do that? Why is thats not the norm. I don’t believe it’s the norm in most newspapers throughout the country. I think what you do is unique.

Robert Pierre: Well, it is in some ways, I mean, there are people who certainly do, like what Peter’s doing in Baltimore, a lot of this is driven by what the individual reporter is interested in, and having been there at the post long enough, since ’93, to be able to sort of carve out something that you’re interested in, because one of the things we’ve always done is we put on, we try to go in and explain, like someone will get killed, and we will still put this on and say someone was killed at a barbershop because they were fighting over 50¢, you know, and it seemed like a very ridiculous crime, and we say, wow, you know, that’s pretty stupid. Here’s how, why would people do something like this? And then you go back, and when you talk to some of the kids, either at the front end, at the crime scene, or you go after the kid’s been in prison, you know, for a while, or whatever, when they’re getting out, and you start to learn what happened behind some of these stories. A lot of what I have learned, either going through hearings, through CSOSA, the organizations that you’re involved with, or the parole commissioner, people, a lot of people who commit crime come out of the abuse and neglect system. Now, and so we want to make it, this crime, this block, this whatever it was, and a lot of times, it’s just, you can’t separate it, because the values story, we want to write our separate values story about a church, we want to write a separate crime story about that neighborhood, but actually, they’re all intertwined, and what you have to do is crime reporters can’t just cover crime, they have to cover a community.

Len Sipes: They’ve got to cover the reality of what happens to individuals throughout their lives, and I think that’s the sort of reporting you bring through the Washington Post, but again, go back, and this is the last time I’ll ask you, the perception I have is that newspapers and a lot of media sources: radio, television, I don’t want to leave the electronic media out of this, it’s almost, it’s almost as if we’ve said, okay, we just don’t care anymore, in terms of the overall crime problem, it’s like we don’t care anymore, how many times can you hear about Johnny Doe sticking up Billy over a perceived insult and killing somebody. I mean, I’ve heard that, they’re saying this to themselves, they’ve heard this for decades, you know, you don’t even have to tell me the story, I can write the story for myself, in my mind’s eye, I’m simply going to skip by it. I mean, have we gotten to that point?

Robert Pierre: Yeah, I think there is certainly a level of disconnectedness with certain crimes, because we say we already know that story, and what I think that you have to do is say, do you need to ask the question, do you know the story, because really, it’s difficult work, as newspapers and as television stations, all the others have less people to go out into communities, what you end up, to do real crime reporting, you’ve actually got to do some work! It’s not just go and interview, you can’t show up the day the crime occurs, and so we end up with the same story because we make it the same story, because we report it exactly the same way. We don’t go inside the numbers, we wrote a story at the Post the other day that really, it was a poorly done story, because we talked about juvenile crime, and how it was increasing, but the numbers don’t say that. The numbers say exactly the opposite, that serious juvenile crime is in fact down. Now it doesn’t mean that the person wasn’t upset about it, because if it happens to you, then you’re very upset about that crime, but we wrote, oh, juvenile crime is rising, because that story gets a headline, but you know, but you’ve got to go deeper, and we actually sometimes do that, but not on a regular enough basis.

Len Sipes: Peter Hermann, you know, this larger issue of digging in deep, this larger issue of providing context, this larger issue that there’s a story behind the story behind the story, and if you’re going to understand what’s happening with the police department, if you’re going to understand what’s happening with corrections, if you’re going to understand what’s happening with drugs, what’s happening with crime, if we find that important, then people need context. People need to understand what it is they’re reading, so it’s got to be more than 3-4 column inches, it has to be an examination of how the system really works.

Peter Hermann: Well, crime is an extraordinarily complex subject. There isn’t just a crime, and then it happens. Once you start researching even, very casually through the criminal justice system on a suspect or on a witness or anyone that gets caught up in the daily story, it’s volumes, and it’s trips to the courthouse, and it’s interviews, and then it’s trying to figure out from there, you could go forever on any story, and any single, certainly any single homicide, every single shooting, there’s a very huge story behind, and probably a very interesting, compelling tale behind each one, and failures of lifestyle, of government, of just, you name it.

Len Sipes: But isn’t the average citizen saying to themselves, “Am I safer? Am I better off? Am I safer? Is my neighborhood safer? Are my children safer?” Is that what they need to understand?

Peter Hermann: Yes, and we do a tremendous disservice by doing very quick stories on crime stats in neighborhoods without delving into the impact of what’s actually happening there, because the answer that is more than just a crime statistic, it is a, it is –

Len Sipes: It is context!

Peter Hermann: – trying to figure out is context, it is a history of the neighborhood, is who lives there now and who doesn’t live there now. Are you, I once had a guy, I once did a story on crime stats, I interviewed someone who thought that things had gotten much better from one year to the next, because in 1990 he was mugged and shot, and in 1991, he just got mugged, but he didn’t get shot, and he thought that was such a tremendous improvement in the system, he was willing to say that government is doing better. And I was astounded by that! It’s perception is everything, and perception of crime is everything.

Len Sipes: People want to know about their safety, people want to know that government is having an effect or not having an effect. That’s the interesting part of this whole dichotomy, people read the paper, or they listen to the evening news, and I don’t think they get that sense that, a) they’re safer; b) that government is doing what it should be doing, or c) what should government do to follow up?

Peter Hermann: Well, I mean, the crime blog in Baltimore, as I mentioned, it would be in D.C., if we ran it all, it would be a blog of everything that happened, it would be a book, and we still get calls from readers who say a police car drove by my neighborhood, I saw the police helicopter, what was it doing there? I don’t know what it was doing there, and frankly, to find out would be almost impossible.

Len Sipes: Yes, I agree.

Peter Hermann: But people see or hear sirens in their neighborhood, they think it’s unsafe for that night. We rationalize crime in a way that’s unbelievable. Federal Hill, which is a very posh neighborhood in the city, near the inner harbor, had two murders on back to back nights.

Len Sipes: And the Belvedere just had three shootings?

Peter Hermann: No, but it just had three shootings –

Len Sipes: The big hotel in Baltimore city, prestigious hotel.

Peter Hermann: But when you listen to the people on Federal Hill, it was, well, it was after 3 in the morning, and I’m not out at 3 in the morning, so it’s okay. Well, the victims were not from my community, so I guess I’m not a target, so it’s okay. Well, one, he wasn’t shot here, the body was dumped there, so it’s okay. I’m thinking, are we that, we look, it’s not on our street, so it’s okay, well it’s not on our doorstep, it’s okay, and I’m thinking, it’s still –

Len Sipes: Well, if you take a look at national research, people constantly rate other neighborhoods as dangerous, but give very high ratings to their own neighborhoods in terms of safety. It’s, I guess it’s a matter of what you know vs. what you don’t know over the hill.

Peter Hermann: It’s everything from what people report to how they report it, to how the police report it, to how they react in different neighborhoods. To say one neighborhood is safer than another, you know, is a very difficult task.

Len Sipes: We’ve just blown by 15 minutes, rapid-fire. I can’t believe how fast this program is going. I want to reintroduce my guests, Peter Hermann, 20 year reporter with the Baltimore Sun. peterhermann@baltsun.com, his blog is baltimoresun.com/crime; and Robert Pierre, it is pierre – P-I-E-R-R-E – r@washpost.com, and I didn’t do our commercial. Ladies and gentlemen, this is D.C. Public Safety, we do listen and respond and read every comment that you provide, we are way above 1,200,000 hits for the program since the program’s inception about a year and a half ago, we appreciate your comments, we appreciate the input that you have, and please continue, and so we’re back to the program. Robert Pierre, what are your thoughts in terms of what Peter just said? Is it that confusing, is it almost impossible to take this immensely complex issue and explain it in such a way that the average citizen understands their role in this?

Robert Pierre: Well, I think it’s, it just requires some investment of time and a lot of places, that investment simply isn’t there anymore, or as often as it should be to do in-depth work. I was at something, crime, a forum this morning sponsored by the Brookings Institute, it was about juvenile justice. And you know, a lot of people, no matter what neighborhood you go to, people say juvenile crime is up, it’s just up, you know, and people are afraid of it.

Len Sipes: These kids are getting out of hand!

Robert Pierre: These kids are getting out of hand, the kids are getting out of hand, now we’ve heard that forever. Now they gave a statistic, now one of the guys, one of the professors gave this statistic, he said, in 2007, there were 1.6 million youth involved in the criminal justice system, in the juvenile justice system, all around the country. And he asked the question, how many of them were murders? And how many would you guess?

Len Sipes: Oh, the overwhelming majority are going to be minor crimes.

Robert Pierre: Overwhelming majority, 1,000 out of 1.6 million were murders.

Len Sipes: Right.

Robert Pierre: Were homicides of any sort, but that would not be, the super predator idea is still very pervasive –

Len Sipes: And hear this statistic, the vast majority of individuals who come into contact with the juvenile justice system, what happens to them?

Robert Pierre: I don’t know.

Len Sipes: They drop out.

Robert Pierre: Oh, they just go away, yeah.

Len Sipes: They just go away. So the overwhelming majority of kids, people under the age of 18 who come into contact with the criminal justice system, don’t stay in contact with the criminal justice system, so they’re interesting stats that the average person would not tend to believe.

Robert Pierre: Now if you’ve gotten, but if you’re one of the people that got knocked over your head by a juvenile, then that doesn’t mean anything to you, because you’re still saying, hey, but that, on my block, what Peter was saying, it’s out of control, because –

Len Sipes: I understand that, you know, I understand that if it happens to you, or if it happens to a loved one, if it happens to your community, if it happens to your larger community as defined by, oh, fill in the blank: East Baltimore, east of the river, black, white, Hispanic, there’s all different ways of defining crime, and there’s all different ways of defining the problem, but you know, it just, the basic line, the bottom line question I have throughout this entire program is that, because of the dwindling resources that most folks in the media seem to be giving to this issue, have we given up truly doing a good job of defining what the problem is and what government should be doing about it? Peter?

Peter Hermann: Well, I think the problem shifts from year to year. When I was covering crime, you know, there was a lot of issues in terms of, we didn’t have gangs, we didn’t have, witness intimidation wasn’t a big issue. I came back to the city, and all of the sudden, witness intimidation is at the forefront, and I think we’ve covered it rather well. Have we done huge, big investigations on it? No, but through, it’s not just one story, and it’s very easy to show the crime scene, point a camera, talk to a bunch of cops, talk to some witnesses, and throw up a story. That’s easy. We can both do that in our sleep by now. The more complicated issue is always going to be coming back on it, and it’s more than just police, and it’s more than just a police reporter doing it, it involves the various social institutions, it involves parole and probation, it can involve, you know, the foster care.

Len Sipes: Does the criminal justice system have the capacity to deal with this, or does it –

Peter Hermann: No, it doesn’t! It doesn’t! The fallacy –

Len Sipes: – or is it a larger societal issue?

Peter Hermann: It’s a larger societal issue. The cops get a lot of the questions, but also a lot of things that go wrong start with the police story. They start with a dead child in a room, and a police reporter with a notebook and a cameraman and a TV crew outside, and then, what happens to that foster, what happened to that child, and then all of the sudden, it’s an issue of foster care, the two children who were killed and found in a freezer in southern Maryland, it’s a issue over adoption agency [overlapping voices] and that’s not a police story, but it starts as a police story.

Len Sipes: It starts as a police story –

Peter Hermann: It’s a larger societal issue, and it gets at a whole bunch of other, other things. A lot of these stories start that way.

Len Sipes: We have significant reductions of crime in Baltimore city, we have significant reductions of crime in Washington D.C. Where, what does that mean to the average person when you report on the fact that homicides are down in Baltimore city, and homicides are down in Washington D.C.? When you say that, when you report on that, what is that person picking up a copy of the Washington Post and sitting there in Northeast Washington, what does that mean to that person? I’m safer?

Robert Pierre: Well, it may not mean anything to that person, but we have two different audiences, because I live in Washington D.C. as well, and I live in Anacostia, a neighborhood that people think is a, and I know it’s a high crime area, because I can look at some of the statistics, and I know that a lot of the offenders that come to the parole/probation system, they live in or around where I live, but one audience is the person who was directly impacted, but another, I’m also a taxpayer in Washington, and I’m also trying, you’re also talking to the people who made a decision about how to put money on the streets, and if homicides are down, then maybe we should spend the money somewhere, maybe we should spend the money somewhere else, maybe we should have what people are talking about, more people walking the beat or something like that, and what police will tell you anyway is that there’s no amount of police that can stop a homicide if someone is intent on killing someone.

Len Sipes: Oh, that’s true! If you have two individuals, not in terms of somebody intent on killing someone, if you have two kids, and they’re sitting on the street corner, and one insults the other person’s girlfriend, and the other person takes out a gun and shoots them, you know, that’s a terribly, terribly difficult thing to intervene in, especially if they don’t have a violent history beforehand, but so many interpersonal squabbles end up in the homicides in both cities. I guess what I’m trying to do is, what do we say to citizens? What is the bottom line beyond, do we just simply objectively report the news and be done with it and go home and have our martinis? Or is there a larger issue in terms of what people should believe in the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post from the crime problem? I don’t think they necessarily should believe me, because I represent government, and I think I’m as honest as the next public affairs person, but I think the real story has to come from the media.

Peter Hermann: It depends – Robert’s exactly right. It depends on your audience. I have someone visiting from outside the city, they call me up to say I’m not coming, because I see homicides are up, and the city’s unsafe. Well, maybe, maybe not, they see homicides are down, they’re going to pay a visit. Well, not necessarily where I live or where I go. If you are intent on purchasing drugs in East or West Baltimore, your chances of being a victim, being robbed, being shot, being killed are much higher than if you visit the inner harbor. So if that’s what I’m going to be doing that day, I might want to look at those stats a little bit more closely.

Len Sipes: If you play the game, the odds are much higher that you could be victimized.

Peter Hermann: Well, we thought, we never have a postman killed in East or West Baltimore. People doing legitimate work, even in some of the worst areas of the city, don’t often get shot. Johns Hopkins Hospital, now it has a lot of security, but it’s in the heart of one of the most dangerous sections of the city.

Len Sipes: If you have a legitimate reason for being there, you’re not bothered.

Peter Hermann: No, I think we had an attack on a nurse back in the “˜90s, and I think that’s the last thing that I can remember. But interesting what you say. When I was covering crime as a reporter, homicides and shootings were skyrocketing, were well above 300 every year, and I used to write stories, headlines would always say, the murder rate is always up, and every time I get a call from the police commissioner, everything else is down. Assaults are down, the burglaries are down, never write about that. I think driving the numbers up were the shootings and the homicides. I just looked at the last bit of stats that we had. Homicides were down 30%. Shootings were down 35%. What’s up? Burglaries, larceny from all those, car break-ins, and assaults. Crime is actually up in Baltimore 1%, but you wouldn’t know it, because now city government is all about the homicides are down, so everybody is safer. [overlapping voices] cars are getting broken into, more houses are getting burglarized [overlapping voices]

Len Sipes: – but that’s the interesting thing. If you look at national statistics, 15% of crime across the board is violent. The overwhelming majority of what we call crime is property crime.

Peter Hermann: Homicides are such a low number, low percentage of any crime in any city, it’s not a good, it’s just not –

Len Sipes: Right, but I remember talking to a manager of a television station who moved in town, and moved into Charles Village in Baltimore city, and he was determined to be part of the city fabric, and after the third larceny from his garage in terms of a bicycle, he simply said, that’s it. So it is an individual –

Peter Hermann: That’s the type of crime that gets, that I find in communities, no matter what community you’re in, it can be a community where 4 people were shot around the corner, the complaint is that my car was broken into.

Len Sipes: My car was broken into, they’re too loud on the corner, there’s too much graffiti, there’s too much trash, there are too many signs of disorder, and that makes me uncomfortable.

Peter Hermann: In every community meeting, every, whether it’s in West Baltimore, or in some other neighborhood, it’s, again, kids are out of control, they’re on the corners –

Len Sipes: Go ahead, Robert.

Robert Pierre: Yeah, and you know, and that’s absolutely right, and for that perspective, and one, and that is what residents, police will tell you this: “Ma’am, I can’t arrest the kid for standing on the corner,” and sometimes they can go shake “˜em down and say I’m going to get them off the corner, but he says, I don’t have a reason to arrest them because they haven’t done anything, but that is the kind of, exactly the kind of thing that makes people nervous about being, about sitting on their own porch, so that, in their own mind, constitutes crime.

Len Sipes: Right. That is their definition of crime! It is not the homicides, it’s not the rapes, it’s what’s happening on your stoop. It’s what’s happening on your street. It’s what’s happening within your immediate community. If you’ve got a bunch of guys who you perceive as thugs rolling that street, they may not be doing anything at all, but the perception of danger is enough to make you feel very uncomfortable. It’s not the homicides, it’s not the rapes, it’s what that person envisions, what that person lives with on a regular day-in/day-out basis.

Peter Hermann: And it’s not just crime. Sometimes it’s something even more subtle than that. Baltimore police have a lot of cameras, as I think D.C. does, and there are neighborhoods that want the cameras, they want surveillance cameras, they want to see the blinking blue light. Other neighborhoods don’t want it, and one fairly wealthy neighborhood where they were having problems with car break-ins [overlapping voices] blue light, it just said that we are now a crime neighborhood, and they didn’t want it, and they railed against it. When we had two people shot in Federal Hill, they got, they immediately flooded the area with police, which is a natural reaction anywhere, immediately the same district got calls from some of its poorer neighborhoods, support in Brookland and Cherry Hill, wondering, well now we have homicides all the time and shootings all the time, now you’ve got two dead people in the rich area, and we’re going to lose all our police!

Len Sipes: So what this says to me then, what this says to me is there’s no way that any newspaper, there’s no way that any media entity can summarize the total, the totality of what we refer to as crime. It’s just too big, too massive, but what they do need is more than 5 column inches 3 pages in on the local section, they do need somebody that places this in the context for them so they can have a better understanding so they can make their own decisions as to how to live their lives. Am I in the ballpark?

Peter Hermann: Yeah, but keep in mind, newspapers aren’t books, and we don’t write PhD dissertations, all of which have been tried on this same subject, and none of them ever get to where we all want to be. We tend to write short stories, and I think you have to look at both over time, what they’ve done with some of the small stories, the small stories, tend to put something on the mark, Robert notices them, goes out, something bigger on them, it builds on itself, have to look at the coverage over time, and hopefully over time, we’ve come, we’re able to come to some conclusions.

Len Sipes: But newspapers and media sources, Robert, do need to dedicate themselves to helping citizens understand the reality of what, for many cities in this country, is their driving concern.

Robert Pierre: But you know, I would say this. As we talk about what newspapers should and shouldn’t do and what other newspapers, and I’m not sure we do it on a lot of things. Crime is one example. Newspapers aren’t going to forget crime, because it’s easy to cover, and it is something that’s immediate. Some people don’t want my analysis of it, they don’t want Peter’s analysis of it, they just want to know how many break-ins were there on my block, and so I think that you’re always going to get some of that from newspapers, and some people only want to know, what was the fire truck doing on my block last night?

Len Sipes: Or what was the helicopter –

Robert Pierre: Exactly, whatever it was, and so for them, it’s going to be enough, but I think that, if newspapers are going to fulfill some of these other duties that I think we have an obligation to, which is talking back a little bit to the public policy folks, then we have, that’s where I think we have to put a little bit of effort to getting inside the numbers.

Len Sipes: Mm-hm. Mm-hm. Peter, you’ve got the final word?

Peter Hermann: Oh, I think that’s exactly right. I think there are a ton of things we won’t cover and don’t cover very well or don’t cover at all, and it’s an immensely complex issue, it’s also, that and schools are one of the issues that people want to know most about, but again, the overwhelming, Robert’s exactly right. The overwhelming number of calls are, why is a police car in my neighborhood, how many houses were broken into last night on my street. That’s what they want –

Len Sipes: How does all this affect me, is what you’re saying? Fascinating conversation, the 30 minutes went by like absolute wildfire, and I’d love to do this again with both of you. Peter Hermann, 20 year reporter with the Baltimore Sun, it’s peterhermann – H-E-R-M-A-N-N – @baltsun – B-A-L-T-S-U-N – .com, Peter’s blog, and he also puts up a video blog, I find that very interesting, at baltimoresun.com/crime. 20 year reporter Robert Pierre for the Washington Post, pierre – P-I-E-R-R-E – r@washpost – W-A-S-H-P-O-S-T – .com, ladies and gentlemen, this is D.C. Public Safety, I’m your host, Len Sipes, thank you and have a great day.

– Audio Ends –

Meta terms: crime, criminals, criminal justice, parole, probation, prison, drug treatment, reentry, sex offenders, domestic violence, anger management, corrections, high-risk offenders, GPS, women offenders.

Share

Public Relations and Branding Parole and Probation-American Probation and Parole Association

See http://media.csosa.gov for “DC Public Safety” radio and television shows.
See www.csosa.gov for the web site of the federal Court Services and Offender Services Agency.
See http://media.csosa.gov/blog for the “DC Public safety” blog.

This Radio Program is available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/?p=98

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes: Hi and welcome to DC Public Safety. I’m your host Len Sipes. Ladies and Gentleman, we have an extraordinarily interesting show today from the National Criminal Justice Association, we’re doing a series of shows with the National Criminal Justice Association looking at outstanding programs and pertinent issues regarding the Criminal Justice System, and what they’ve done today is to bring in the outstanding Criminal Justice Program Award winners, and I’m going to introduce three individuals; Pat Dishman, who is with the state of Tennessee, the Office of Criminal Justice Program. She is the Director. Linda Leather is the Chief Executive Officer, and she is with “The Next Door”, and “The Next Door” is a program for woman coming out of prison, coming out of the jail system. Also, we have the Chief Clinical Officer, Cindy Snead. She is also with Next Door and to Pat, and to Linda, and to Cindy. Welcome to DC public safety.

All: Thank you so much, good morning.

Len Sipes: Before we continue, a little commercial. We are way above 1,000,100,000 (one million/one hundred thousand) requests for the program. We’ve listened to every suggestion that you make, and we incorporate most of those suggestions you make into the show. Feel free to contact us at DC Public Safety through your search engine, or simply go to http://media.csosa.gov. That stands for Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, the agency that I am with, and getting back to the program.

Okay, so the National Criminal Justice Association wants to feature dynamite criminal justice programs throughout the country and you guys run this program dealing with women and coming out of the prison system, coming out of the jail system. Linda Leathers, you are the Chief Executive Officer of “The Next Door”, Inc. Why don’t you start off the program and explain what “The Next Door” is.

Linda Leathers: Thanks, Len, we are so excited about this opportunity to tell the nation about “The Next Door.” We’re a residential transition center that focuses on the needs of women coming out of incarceration. It’s housing. It’s recovery-based. It works with workforce development. We work with the needs of addiction and the mental health needs. We really concentrate on giving the woman the greatest opportunity for success when she re-enters society. That’s our goal, that’s our mission, and that’s our passion.

Len Sipes: Cindy Snead, you’re the Chief Clinical Officer. That means that you have to diagnose and make decisions as to who these individuals are and what they need.

Cindy Snead: Exactly, and we make the assumptions that everyone coming into our system has a mental disorder or at least some underlying mental health needs, as well as an addiction to a substance, and most woman who have an addiction to a substance also have cross-addictions, such as sexual addictions, gambling addictions, etc.

Len Sipes: And I’m going to go to Pat Dishman, the Director of the Office of Criminal Justice Program. Pat, now, you are principally a guiding agency for the state of Tennessee in terms of guiding criminal injustice endeavors, and my guess is that you also provide funding, and you also provide some of the funding for “The Next Door.”

Pat Dishman: That’s correct, and we are very happy to be a part of that collaboration. The State of Tennessee, as many of the states in the country, are looking at ways to deal with the whole re-entry issue of people who have spent time in the Criminal Justice System, as they come back into society, and “The Next Door” offered us a wonderful opportunity to support that, along with services for woman who had been institutionalized.

Len Sipes: I’m going to give out some contact points now, (202) 628-8550, for the National Criminal Justice Association, www.ncja.org and for “The Next Door”, and this is simply if you are going to search for information on “The Next Door” and it’s simply, www.TheNextDoor.org, and do I have that correctly, everybody?

All: Yes, Sir.

Len Sipes: Alright, let’s get into the gist of the program, and what we have is a situation where woman are now facing an increasing rate of incarceration. There are a higher percentage of the prison population than ever before, and I’ve done some radio shows and television shows at DC Public Safety on women offenders, and one of the astounding things is the rate of sexual violence towards woman as children. The research seems to indicate that the majority come from backgrounds of neglect, abuse and sexual violence.

I sat down with a group of women offenders once time at a prison in the state of Maryland, in a pre-release center, and I was astounded when I heard that an awful lot of them didn’t want to leave, that in that institution they had their meals, they had the counseling, they were getting their GEDs, they were getting occupational certificates in the big jail. This is a prison. The pre-release center. There, they felt safe. There, they felt that the world would not abuse them. Outside, there were no guarantees. Any comments to what I’m saying.

Linda Leathers: Well, we hear the woman commonly say in our program there are worse things than jail, and what you’ve described, you know, is the true state of affairs for many of our women, and they don’t have safe places to return to, and many of their families are in active addiction. The stressors of, inasmuch as they want, and since we’re talking about women, we have to bring in the children factor. You know, most of our women have children. Statistically, I believe, it’s over 50% of the woman incarcerated, and I think that’s low. Women across the country have at least 2.5 children a piece, and given that, they will say, “I’m ready to go home to be a mother to my children,” but when they return without the proper support in those homes, their children themselves, and the issues related to parenting, become huge stressors that drive them back into addiction and many times back into the Criminal Justice System.

Cindy Snead: And I would say, Len, that we’ve served, with “The Next Door”, since we opened in May of 2004, over 475 women and over 88% of those women would say that they were traumatized. They were abuse was as children, and you are right, it is sexual, and it is horrible, and it was never treated, and so then we get in this cycle of having to self-medicate because I don’t know how to deal with my pain and then you do whatever it takes to get your next hit of drugs, and so it becomes a vicious cycle that leads to criminal behavior. Sometimes, we get a chance here, at “The Next Door”, to tell them for the first time ever that it wasn’t their fault and to help them get help from the core abuse that has caused them great, great pain in their life.

Len Sipes: You know people are going to accuse me of being a screaming liberal here, and I come from a law enforcement background as where I started off with the Maryland State Police before I left to go to college, and you know I can be quite a bit of a conservative on a lot of issues when it comes to the Criminal Justice System, but here is my guess, and any of you can jump in and/or say I’m wrong, but an awful lot, and I’m not making excuses for these individuals. If they have done the crime, they should do the time, but I found that the overwhelming majority of the women offenders that I have been in contact with, throughout my professional career, are not what I consider to be a danger to society. In many cases, they are acting out their own addictions, or acting out their own mental health issues and they are more of a pain in the rear to society, more than they are a danger to society, and if given the treatment services, mental health services, substance abuse services and if they are given assistance in terms of dealing with their kids, they will be taxpayers and not tax burdens. Response?

Cindy Snead: I couldn’t agree more. I think that’s absolutely accurate, and you know, if the world were perfect, we could get to these woman before they ever reached the Criminal Justice System in the first place, and the reality is that there’s a phrase, you know, when you go to prison, you’re rehabbed, and there is the other thought that you have to be “habbed” in the first place, and the women that are entering our criminal justice society, they don’t have the tools to survive on their own, and the majority of the woman are being incarcerated as a result of some drug-related offense, be it prostitution, or larceny or theft in order to obtain drugs, in reality, the majority of it is drug-related. I believe that it’s not enough to know that the woman uses drugs, and that’s what sends her to prison. You have to get to why she uses drugs in the first place.

Len Sipes: Right, and Cindy Snead, you are the Chief Clinical Officer, my guess is that the heart and soul of their substance abuse, and the heart and soul of their acting out, is the fact that they were neglected as kids, and in many cases hit as kids, and in many cases sexually abused as kids, right or wrong?

Cindy Snead: That’s absolutely true, and basically that is proven again and again, and really the women and the statistics of the women coming into “The Next Door” and moving into society after leaving our program mirror that of the prisons. I mean, that’s common sense, and that’s why a lot of our program has been set up as a recovery and we are in the system of care to address all of those needs.

You know, a mental health disorder or an addiction, to me, is not an excuse for bad behavior.

Len Sipes: And we have to get that point across. It is not an excuse for bad behavior. In all the ills of this world, and all of the millions upon millions of individuals who turn to our Criminal Justice System, I mean we can make excuses in terms of their childhood and their upbringing for probably the majority of them, but yet there is a certain point where society has got to say no. There is a certain point where society has got to say, the prostitution brings down my community, the drug use brings down my community, the other crimes you were involved in bring down my community. So I understand why people are saying, “Hey, you know, they committed crimes, for the love of the heavens, shouldn’t they be held responsible?” But, I think some of the scariest things that you can do to a female offender is to put them in treatment to confront what’s happened to them previously and to go through the therapeutic community, and to go through the drug treatment. That, to me, is the scariest thing, and is the harshest thing, in fact, that you can do, if you will, to these individuals, so I don’t know how, and I’m stumbling here. I don’t know if I’m making any sense, but if there are people who want that pound of flesh for individuals disobeying the law, to me, that is the pound the flesh. To me, that is the most difficult thing they will ever do in their lives, confronting their past.

Pat Dishman: Len, I think you’re right, and from a state’s perspective, and I also think from a national perspective, the re-entry issue, which is really part of what we are talking about here, whether it is women or men, “The Next Door” is just a wonderful example of a program for women, and we really have to confront. I mean, not only is it the right thing to do, but also it is a hugely important budget issue for the country and for the state. Do we continue to build more and more beds, more and more brick and mortar, or do we really try to deal with the issue of recidivism and reduce that and get to the heart of the program and help people not re-enter the system once they’ve paid their pound of flesh, and they’ve left.

Len Sipes: I have a woman who we were serving warrants in a section of Washington DC one time, and I think she summed up the whole re-entry movement, in my mind, beautifully. She was a member of the community and she simply said, “You know, the ones that need the help. The ones that really want the help, need the help and are willing to change, help them, but the ones who aren’t take them. Get them out of my community,” and I think that’s the heart and soul of it, that there are literally millions of people who can be helped, and there are literally millions of people who probably, at this stage in their lives, are unwilling to be helped, so there should be the re-entry programs in place for those individuals who are ready to be helped.

Cindy Snead: I couldn’t agree with you more, and I think what you are describing, Len, is a point of readiness. You know, I can see a woman that says, you know, “I’m ready to change, and I’m ready to change this, that and the other, specifically, in my life,” but she goes out and commits another crime, is re-incarcerated, and I ask her again, “So, are you ready to change now?” and she says, “Yes, I’m ready to change.”

So many times, my experience has taught me that those points of incarceration are moments of opportunity and that they are safe off the street long enough to really work with that woman, engage her and encourage that change in her life, and as Linda said early in the program, recovery from mental illness is absolutely possible. Recovery from addiction is absolutely possible, and recovery from going out and getting that fast money versus trying to make it on minimum wage with two children, you’ve go a lot of societal factors that are working against you, but you know recovery is possible with the right people and the right system that never gives up on them.

Pat Dishman: And that’s another reinforcement, also Len, of “The Next Door” for us, as a state funding agency. We are charged with, and of course the federal government continues to press this point, as we do in all the states, we don’t have the resources to place in programs that are not effective, that do not produce the outcome that we all need.

Len Sipes: That gets to the heart and soul of it. At what point can we, as governmental people, look the citizens square in the eye and say, “You know what, this program works. These people, a certain percentage, will become taxpayers instead of tax burdens. Your life is going to be safer because of it, and you are going to save money.” Can we do that? Can we look the citizen in the eye in terms of “The Next Door” Incorporated and say, this works.

Cindy Snead: I would say absolutely, and we show it through outcomes. We welcome accountability from all our funders. It’s important, and if we receive funding, there ought to be results, and we realize that, we welcome it, and actually we look forward to it because it allows us a greater platform to say, “Look what is happening.” I would just say, Len, 14% of the recidivism rates of women who come through our six-month program, and then leave our program after four years, 14% which is phenomenal.

Len Sipes: It is phenomenal. People don’t understand how good that is.

Cindy Snead: Right, because that 14%, that means that 86% are doing great and are working hard on their recovery, or if they’re having challenges, they’re calling back home. We are home for women, and programs like this can be established all over the country for both woman and men, because they just need a chance.

You said something earlier, that I just wanted to go back to. Our women are not bad women. They just make terrible choices, they want a second chance, and that is what we are here to give them.

Len Sipes: That’s the difficulty in terms of the larger discussion throughout the country, because, you know, and the people who have listened to this program have heard me give this example endlessly that my wife, who was the vice president of a PTA, said, “Why are we giving money to people who have harmed society? Why don’t we give this to the schools where we can wipe this out? We can do a much better job with our children if we put all this money into the schools.”

My mother, God bless her soul, said, “I’ve been through the Great Depression. I’ve been through the Second World War, at what point do we take care of the seniors of this country? Why is money going to people who have harmed other human beings?”

And the third question, is, okay, if these programs are so great, why aren’t they in every city and every community throughout the country?

So, there’s got to be a reason for the general reluctance, or we are just beginning to prove ourselves. I don’t know how to respond to all that.

Pat Dishman: I think it’s the second part, Len, that you just said. When you have so much as a funding agency, at the national, state or local level, tied up in, if you will, beds and/or bricks and mortar, I think it’s very difficult to find the dollars to either use on the front end of the system, which is prevention, which is what your wife is saying, obviously, and/or the backend which is ensuring that once the debt to society has been paid that services are available like “The Next Door” that are effective that can help to support those woman as they continue crime-free, hopefully, throughout the rest of their lives. It’s all a balance, and we never have enough money throughout the whole system, and I think that’s the best thing to say, at the time that you need it, but if we produce effective and support effective programs, then obviously one would hope over time that we can handle all of those budgetary problems in a way that citizens can feel good about.

Len Sipes: Ladies and Gentleman, you are listening to DC Public Safety. We have a program today from the National Criminal Justice Association. The National Criminal Justice Association has nominated this program for the Outstanding Criminal Justice Program Award, and I want to give contact points out, (202) 628-8550, for the National Criminal Justice Association here in Washington, DC, www.ncja.org and the program we are talking about today is “The Next Door”, and you can find them through the internet at www.TheNextDoor.org, and do I have that correctly, everybody? We have three individuals: Pat Dishman, Director of the State of Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice programs; Linda Leathers, Chief Executive Officer for “The Next Door”; and Cindy Snead, Chief Clinical Officer The Next door. An extraordinarily interesting program. Cindy, do you go home broken-hearted at times in terms of all the stories of the individuals who come to you? I had a woman one time in a forum we were doing, stand up and simply said, “The woman I’m living with pulled a knife on me and my two children and told us to get out, so I’m now homeless with two kids, what are you going to do about it?” and that’s the day to day reality of women offenders coming out of the jail and prison systems. They have kids. They have the enormous responsibility of taking care of those kids. They want to be clean, but it’s very difficult making your way from point A to point B.

Cindy Snead: Yes, it is, and yes my heart has been broken many, many times, and I have to say that if I don’t feel their pain to a certain extent, then I’m impaired professionally myself, and that’s a dangerous balance, and trying to maintain self-care for all of our staff because we do put so much into the work of “The Next Door” and we believe every woman is worth another shot and another opportunity, so I will say, as well, that one of the things is that, the more you work with these women, and you mentioned earlier how this has got to be one of the toughest things ever to do, which is to face whatever caused that pain, and being here for six months in our transitional living program, you have an opportunity to really begin to work on that, and do it with a lot of support around, so it’s like ripping off a Band-Aid really fast versus ripping it off slowly and then beginning to dig into that wound, and what has caused that pain. The more you work with them, the more you figure out that they are not victims as they have seen themselves in the past, but they emerge as survivors.

I mean, the things these women have survived, every story that you hear is a privilege to hear, and it is just as painful as the one before it, and one of the things that “The Next Door” has really learned a lot in the past couple of years is that we need to put more of our injury into the intergenerational impact of addiction, and subsequently the crimes that come with that, and that means backing up and doing some prevention work with the children of the woman coming out of our programs, so we are really taking a strong interest in working with these little kids, and some of them are adult children of these woman, and try and help them learn how to talk to one another and help the mom explain where she has been and why she has been where she has been.

Len Sipes: Well, the research on the children of incarcerated parents seems to indicate a lot of this dysfunction, of early age of onset of drug use, of alcohol, and getting involved in the Criminal Justice System, so if there are 2.5 kids for every woman in the Tennessee Criminal Justice System, and I don’t know if that’s a national figure or a Tennessee figure, we are at the same time, I am assuming, addressing the needs of those kids by addressing the needs of the mother, and we do that collectively.

Pat Dishman: Exactly, Len, and back to that point of balance, I think that we’re trying to make certain that everyone gets the services that they need, but also the balance in regard to funding effective programs versus programs that are not as effective. I would just like to make the point, and I know your listeners are well aware of this, but struggling with funding at any time is always an issue, but lately during the last few years we have found ourselves in a situation of almost, for all spending in our country because of a our problems, where we are looking at perhaps reduced funding, and one of the things that we have been very concerned about with “The Next Door” is that if cuts are happening to our level of funding that we can use to support these kinds of programs, then what will we do to address the issues of the women and their children if we are faced with those kinds of real happenings that could occur.

Len Sipes: Well, you have federal budget cuts that go down to the state, and agencies like yourself, the Office of Criminal Justice Programs, virtually ever state in the country has a similar type of office where monies flow through. You’re supposed to coordinate the anti-crime effort in the state of Tennessee, as the other offices are supposed to create anti-crime efforts in their own states, and if you don’t have the funding flowing from DC, then you don’t have the ability, or you have less of an ability to fund innovative programs like “The Next Door.”

Pat Dishman: That’s right, and I would like for Linda and Cindy to talk a little bit about how wonderful their collaboration has been. Our office, the Office of Criminal Justice Programs, has used the Bar and Justice Assistance Grant to offer funding “The Next Door.” Now, I know that they also, because they have done such a good job of collaboration, and really using funds to leverage against other funds, they have money from different state departments, and I think Linda you also have another federal grant, but in regard to that Bar and Justice Assistance Grant, Len, we have seen that funding go up and down for the last few years, and unfortunately this last year, which was the Federal Fiscal Year 2008, we received reduction in that formula grant, and everyone of course, almost 67%, which is pretty staggering when you are trying to deal with how do we keep this money flowing to programs like “The Next Door.”

Cindy Snead: And I’ve said, Len, it’s so important that we provide housing with the supportive services. It’s not either/or. It must both, and with the Bar and JAG, I felt it was an amount of money for three years in which we could really invest in our substance abuse treatment, our recovery support services, and so we do believe as an organization, and we would encourage any organization to think about diversity of funding, but not all of any funding that is coming from one source, but this has been a tremendous source of funding for us that really established a program that has now become a national model, so groups, the treatment plans and the goal setting are all a part of this grant, and I will tell you we are so grateful for the accountability that the Criminal Justice Program demands of our program. I know that they are utilizing that money very faithfully, because the requirements of the program are great, and that is what should happen for government leaders and therefore, for taxpayers like me, it’s great to know that the money has been administered well.

Pat Dishman: And that actually gets to your point, Len, you can actually look at the taxpayer and say, “For this dollar invested, this is what we got back for you.”

Len Sipes: Yeah, and I think that’s probably the most important thing that we can do for the taxpayer because they are simply asking, “Where are my dollars going, and what is that doing to make me safer, and what are you doing to relieve the tax burden from me?” and I think that has to happen. But, now, to be perfectly fair, there are going to be a lot of people who will say, “Look, Ladies, if the program is that wonderful, why doesn’t the state of Tennessee fund it?”

Pat Dishman: Sure, absolutely, and it , Linda, I’m trying to think. I know you don’t have any state dollars from us. Are their state dollars from any other department at this point.

Linda Leathers: You know, we do. Again, diversity of funding from those private donations, corporations, foundations, some governmental, local, state and federal are so crucial to the mix, that we can’t get lopsided on any one of those. We do receive some money from the Department of Mental Health and Development. We do receive some funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) through the Accessed Recovery Grant, but the Bar and JAGrant has been most instrumental in helping us get to the point of building the quality program in which we are showing the outcomes and for which we definitely need for this society.

Pat Dishman: Len, your point about the state’s support, you are absolutely right, and what our job is, in this office, as in the other state departments, is to make sure that we are not duplicating services, to work together and to also have a team put our money, the taxpayers money in Tennessee that comes through Tennessee State Government, into the programs that are the most effective in that we can produce the best results for the least amount of money.

Len Sipes: And I think that’s the whole idea behind all of the Offices of Criminal Justice Programs throughout the country, and I think there are different reasons why the National Criminal Justice Association is as interested in this discussion, because everybody understands that we have to maximize our dollars and we have to prove our worthiness to the taxpayer, and I think that as long as we do that, we are going to receive some support, and that’s why I think that the state of Tennessee and “The Next Door,” I think is a profoundly good example of holding ourselves, we in the Criminal Justice System, accountable because I think in the final analysis, if we can’t prove our worth, then it’s going to be awfully hard to go to people and ask for money. You got to prove your worth.

Now, we have two minutes. Ladies, any other final points?

Linda Leathers: Well, from “The Next Door” standpoint, it’s wonderful to see changes occur in the lives of women, because we know that transformation is going to work down to the families, so we are changing generational patterns, and that’s what funding does. That’s what peer relationships does, that’s what quality services do. We can’t say thank you enough to the Criminal Justice Program, to the Bar and JAG, and so many people out there that are working in the system and outside the system when they come out, to make a woman’s life successful when she come out.

Pat Dishman: And then what we are going to do, is that we are going to continue as a state to work, and obviously with the state dollars that we have, but also with the National Criminal Justice Association, as we continue to tell the story, as you have said, to the American Citizen about what is needed and how we can ensure that the money that is placed in our stead to use is used most effectively.

Len Sipes: Cindy?

Cindy Snead: Well, Len, I would say in closing that the message that I think that we are trying to communicate here today is that a woman is not her crime, and “The Next Door” exist to give the woman the tools to prove it.

Len Sipes: Well, I’ll tell you, I think that your program, and I’ve been in touch with other programs throughout the country, and a program here in the District of Columbia, and I think these programs are extraordinarily important. I think they allow an individual, if they are ready, to cross that bridge and take care of their kids. All of us in the Criminal Justice System have simply seen way too many kids go neglected, and we say to ourselves, that if we can somehow, some way deal with this problem of neglect and have people raise their kids responsibly and we can have a real impact on the overall issue of crime and justice within this country, and I think that’s what you are trying to do. You are trying to help the individual offenders cross that bridge and take care of their kids, and that’s what everybody wants. I think that’s the bottom line to me.

Ladies and Gentleman, this is DC Public Safety Program of the Court Services and Offenders Supervision Agency in Washington, DC. The program today has been coordinated by the National Criminal Justice Association, and their program “The Next Door” was their Outstanding Criminal Justice Program award winner. The contact points for the National Criminal Justice Association are (202) 628-8550, or www.ncja.org and for information about “The Next Door”,” it is www.TheNextDoor.org and to Linda Leathers, Cindy Snead and to Pat Dishman, thank you ladies.

Ladies and Gentleman, this is again DC Public Safety, and we do listen to every comment that you make. We take them into consideration, contact us at DC Public Safety through your internet search engine, or simply go and search for media.csosa.gov and have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

Share

Media Coverage of Crime and Criminal Justice Issues

This Radio Program is available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/?p=64

– Please see our web site at www.csosa.gov.
– Please see our radio and television programs at http://media.csosa.gov.
– Please see our blog at http://media.csosa.gov/blog.

(Audio Begins)

Leonard Sipes: Hi and welcome to the radio version of D.C. Public Safety. I’m Leonard Sipes. Today’s guest is Ted Guest and he is the president of Criminal Justice Journalists. He used to be an editor for U.S. News and World Report and was a newspaper editor before that. Welcome Ted.

Ted Guest: Thank you. Good to be here.

Leonard Sipes: We are here today to discuss the whole concept of journalists covering criminal justice issues, crime related issues, crime reporters. And as being in the business for the last 30 years in terms of doing media relations for a variety of criminal justice agencies, I have had the joy and the thrill of being, I suppose, up against or dealing with the best reporters from the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Times and elsewhere and its always fascinated me that of the whole interaction, the whole relationship, the give and take between journalists and those of us who represent the criminal justice system and Ted sometimes it’s adversarial and sometimes its very friendly

Ted Guest: Yeah. It obviously depends on what the story is. So yes, it depends on how cooperative both the source is and the journalist is how professional everyone is. But yes, in this field obviously we’re gonna have some conflict because, let’s face it, we deal collectively in what a lot of people might call bad news. So a lot to times by definition we’re gonna being talking about things that are bad, crimes that were committed and what either is or isn’t being done about it.

Leonard Sipes: And often times the lack of an adequate response on the part of the criminal justice system. So it becomes dicey, there’s no doubt about it. But, I’ll say this, my first 10 years were representing federal agencies, you know large, Department of Justice clearing house and the National Crime Prevention Council. I thought I knew something about public relations. I went to work for the Maryland Department of Public Safety which was corrections and the state police and the Fire Marshals office and Maryland Emergency Management and boy, what a education. I had no idea what real public relations was like until I represented an agency and was on the receiving end not of people who, nice people who wanted information on crime prevention or crime statistics. Now they’re really hammering me as to why did your agency do what it did and why did it screw up and yada yada yada. It was difficult.

Ted Guest: Yes. I don’t know if you want to get into some of the substance here but one I guess myth is that all journalists are alike and all media are alike and clearly that is not correct especially in this day and age we live in now with people on the web, people doing pod casts as we’re doing right now, people doing all sorts of media. So that’s one big basic point which establishes the beginning that like people in your profession, people in the journalism profession are gonna come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and I don’t mean that sarcastically, but people who are trained people who are not very well trained, people who might have some preconception about what a story is or what a story isn’t. But I think we should avoid although we are gonna be speaking in generalities, people in your profession should avoid generalities in dealing with the media such as you know all media people are terrible or all of them are great or all of them think that public agencies are bad because most of those things are not true. I think people, we find, deal, with things on a story by story basis. Let’s get into some of the specific things you want to explore here.

Leonard Sipes: Okay. Well part of that is however a sense with representing the criminal justice agencies, representing government for the last 20, 30 years, there is a good degree of mistrust by people on the government side because they think the journalist is solely there to embarrass him. They don’t understand the fact that it’s a complex criminal justice agency, that there are budget issues, that there political issues or all sorts of things that are going on that I guess, considerations that the journalist never considers. It’s simply from their perspective, it’s a gotcha. It is simply an exercise to embarrass not educate the public. Now on the media side I think sometimes that they have the perception that we in the bureaucracy simply are not responsive to their needs. We too secretive, we don’t talk enough, we’re not open enough and somewhere in the middle of all that’s probably the truth.

Ted Guest: Right. Of course we in the media don’t cover things for the most part in terms of agencies. I don’t come to work in the morning, if I’m a reporter thinking for the most part, that my job today is to assess how an agency is doing. There are exceptions for that. There are obviously a lot of investigations throughout journalism history in how particular agencies work. But I think we should think about, the journalists are thinking about things more in terms of stories. What is a story? And a story can be a very generic story like what is happening with crime and criminal justice in our community or more likely it’s going to be a story about a particular crime that’s been committed. Either a crime, we may know a lot about that crime, we may know not very much, we might know that someone is being inspected or arrested in that crime and go from there. And I think that’s where most journalists are coming from and I think a lot of agency people may think wrongly, I’m coming to work in the morning; I’m going to do a story about how the police department is terrible. Well, I mean that could be the case somewhere, I’m not saying that isn’t the case but more likely I’m coming just to find out what’s going on and then to assess things. And it may be that part of that assessment will be how well the agency is doing but I think the first thing we start with is sort of the basic. We all know the cliché about the basic four or five Ws, you know, who, what, where, when, why. That’s what we’re trying to find out and we hope that agencies, government agencies, or private agencies can be helpful in trying to determine that. Now clearly we may want to get into this. There are going to be some cases in which there’s a question in which an agency handled a particular case but that’s not the focus of most journalistic reporting in the crime area, I don’t think.

Leonard Sipes: Well before going on to the content of the program. I do want to mention the fact that you are associated with what, two universities?

Ted Guest: Criminal Justice Journalists is an independent organization. We have a board of 50 working journalists. Journalist who have gone into academia or into law but yes we are affiliated with two places. The University of Pennsylvania Criminology Department and more recently John J. College of Criminal Justice, New York City and we have created there something called the Center for Media Crime and Justice. Which Criminal Justice Journalist is a part. The basic purpose in both of these institutions is to improve the media coverage of criminal justice. So, I want to set that out very clearly that we’re trying to improve things and of course that includes a critique of the media and a critique in many cases of public officials. Generically, we’re into journalist training but there’s also by definition includes training if you could call it that of public officials and people who deal with journalists. So one of our major things now is to put out a daily news digest of major stories in criminal justice nationally in the United States and sometimes in foreign countries everyday because of the format we have a limit of 12 stories but we try to get a variety of stories there from federal, state, local. Not obviously trying to cover every crime. There’s no way we could do that but major issues,

Leonard Sipes: It’s the best summary and I tell the people everyday, it is the best summary of crime and criminal justice issues on a daily basis bar none. How do people get it? People listening to this program, how do they get access to it?

Ted Guest: Well you have to go to a website. I don’t know if you actually want me to recite the web address.

Leonard Sipes: Sure of course.

Ted Guest: I’ll read it. One way to do it would just be to do a Google a search of our name, Criminal Justice Journalists or the name of the news service, Crime and Justice News. Because we are supported primarily by John J College, it’s free. You can get this once a day via email or it can be,

Leonard Sipes: And it’s an incredible resource.

Ted Guest: Or you could just look it up on the web. I mean I could give the exact name.

Leonard Sipes: No, no. I think if they Google Criminal Justice Journalists they’re going to be able to get access very quickly to your newsletter and anybody, especially, any citizen, anybody interested in a crime and criminal justice issues, this is the publication that keeps me up to date of what’s going on throughout the country regarding crime and criminal justice issues so you all should be congratulated for that.

Ted Guest: Thank you.

Leonard Sipes: Ted, what are the major issues as far as journalists who cover the criminal justice system? Is it access? Is it being stonewalled? Is it the paranoia and distrust of the media? What is it that you think is the principle issue as far as criminal justice journalists are concerned?

Ted Guest: Well by issue, I mean, there are various ways you could interpret that. The major thing I think is just trying to cover the news in terms as I said of both general trends in crime and justice but also getting information about individual cases. And in most areas I think this works out pretty well, most areas. Now there are some exceptions, I mean and again a lot of this is anecdotal. I think you’re listeners on this know that in this country in the United States we have somewhere around, no one even knows, 17,000 or 18,000 law enforcement agencies, 50 state correction systems, of course the federal system so everything I say varies. In one area everything could be working out well and I hope it is in most areas. In other areas it’s not working out well. For instance, reporters who say anecdotally, I can’t get any information out of the police department or they will just tell me the bare amount of information. You got to remember with these 17 or 18,000 agencies and the limited number of reporters, a lot of information gathering is being done by phone, by internet, second hand so it’s not usually a case of reporters sitting down like we are now face to face doing interviews. And of course we’re talking about a 24/7 operation. Maybe someday way back when you could operate more or less on a Monday through Friday 9-5 schedule of course that was never really literally true but whatever was the case then now we’re in a 24/7 era so things could be coming up at any hour of the night and day so access to information is one of the major issues. It’s hard to generalize it. Again this can vary from place to place and from person to person. Obviously there are state laws, there are regulations but a lot of reporters dealing with sources, and by sources I mean not only government agencies but just private agencies, service providers, lawyers, etc. It comes down to personal relations.

Leonard Sipes: Yes, I’ve always said that.

Ted Guest: As the level of knowledge on both sides and as I said there are reporters who are knowledgeable and some that aren’t and public officials who are knowledgeable and some that aren’t and when you have a happy medium there of professional people dealing with each other with high level of knowledge generally it works out fine. The problems come in when one side or the other doesn’t have that level of knowledge and there’s a lot of dissatisfaction. I know among public officials, I get reporters who don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know the difference between probation and parole, between jails and prisons, between,

Leonard Sipes: I’ll throw an observation out and that is when I first started this you had beat reporters, you had reporters who really were knowledgeable about the criminal justice system. You had hard nosed investigative reporters who made your life very difficult because often times they knew more about the subject matter than you did. Now, they were ordinarily fair. These real tough hard nosed investigative reporters, ordinarily I found them to be very fair. They ordinarily tried to cut it right down the middle. I think that’s changed. I think it’s changed dramatically because of the cut backs in newsrooms all through out the country. I think now you’re going to get a reporter who really doesn’t know a lot about the topic. And that is I think increasing. Your opinion?

Ted Guest: Well it’s hard to quantify this so, and again as I said earlier we have so many different medias especially some of the new medias and that certainly has proved true. On the other hand we still have quite a few very good newspapers and broadcast operations who have experienced reporters so it’s pretty hard to generalize but let’s assume whatever the actual number is; there are a bunch of journalist out there and any time who don’t know really the basics of what they’re talking about, about whatever subject. Whether it be agriculture or energy or criminal justice. So, our group, again to give a plug for us, we have some resources to help on this. I’m getting a little ahead of the game here but we have a course at a place called the Pointer Institute in Florida. Of course the basic course for police reporters and one for court reporters. We also have a guide online. You could see all of this,on our website a guide telling journalists the basics. But even then, even if journalists knew all of that, which they doing, they’re always going to be new reporters. People are coming out of journalism schools literally every year and thousands of them who don’t know this stuff so I would urge people in your profession to be patient which is sometimes difficult when people are on deadlines but be patient and if necessary err on the side of explaining the basics. If you start off again in a hypothetical case, if someone’s asking you about probation or parole you might say, do you know the difference. If they say yes I know the difference, well it may become clear that they do or it may become clear that they don’t.

Leonard Sipes: Or it becomes clear in their reporting that they don’t and they were just too embarrassed to ask.

Ted Guest: Yeah, so. Or you might have and I know, I think you do in this particular agency, but actual fact sheets either online or on piece of paper that you can hand people. A lot of people, again, just to use that very basic thing, don’t know the difference between a prison and a jail, it can seem pretty obvious but a lot of people say he was sent to jail for 20 years. You think, no wait a minute, jail is usually for people with sentences of one or two years.

Leonard Sipes: Or I’ve seen print reporters say it was a robbery when it was a burglary.

Ted Guest: Yes. So, be patient and don’t assume that people know that and most reporters again, there are exceptions to everything, most reporters want to learn the facts, want to get it accurately. Who wants to do an inaccurate story? So most reporters will appreciate I think efforts by public officials to get them the correct information. Now some of them still won’t get it right. By the way, this may be a little off the subject but I would feel free if I were a source of a story to call up a reporter who has screwed something and correct them later in a, again, in a positive way or if that doesn’t work, going to their superiors. I know you don’t want to do that very often but if there something really egregious and the reporter is either not returning your call or is continuing to make the same error, I think the superior of that reporter should know about it. Again, I’m talking about cases, extreme cases here in which someone really did something terrible. Unfortunately there’s a level of error in journalism.

Leonard Sipes: The best available version of the news. History’s first draft.

Ted Guest: Yeah, everyday, now this is good news. I think every day in most US newspapers there is a long list of corrections. Sometimes it’s 10 or 12 items. You might say that you could look at that either way, that it’s terrible they make 10 or 12 mistakes. When you think about it, a big newspaper of 50, 60, 70 pages, if they make 10 or 12 mistakes and some of them are very minor, I noticed just today I think it was the New York Times, ran a correction from a story from the year 2000 from 7 years ago but they were, they said hey we just learned about this, we are correcting it. Now granted some news media are not very good about making corrections but I think that’s good advice.

Leonard Sipes: You started talking a little while ago about the personal relationship between the public affairs officer or somebody representing the government, the bureaucracy and the individual reporter. I mean, you’re bureaucracy, the bureaucracy of the media, the bureaucracy of the government, we all mistrust each other. It is a bit of an adversarial relationship but in probably 85 maybe even 90% of the times it is nothing more than a personal relationship where that person asked you questions and you responded and in many cases go off the record and provide a full explanation as to what’s going on. I remember quite a few times I would say to the reporter, now you know everything I know. So you know there’s no question about you not knowing the facts and knowing exactly what the facts are even though I can’t give them to you for the record. Hopefully in a couple of days from now I’ll give them to you for the record. In many cases it’s that level of personal interaction. Or that reporter will come along and say look I’m under incredible pressure on the part of my editor to get this done. I think my editor is completely off base but I’m going to ask it anyway. I’m going to ask this embarrassing question and you can respond in an off the record basis. So much of this is that personal relationship and a matter of trust between that government representative and that journalist, correct?

Ted Guest: Yes. We just have to respect the different jobs that we have. I mean you have a particular job. I have a particular job. Some things you do I might not agree with but I’m not going to tell you how to do your job. Some things I do you might not agree with. I presumably have a pretty good sense of what my audience wants and they might or might not…

Leonard Sipes: Well you also have a first amendment right to do whatever you want.

Ted Guest: It might or might not correspond with yours so that’s just another bit of advice I would give to again, to public officials. You may not appreciate the way that something was portrayed in the news media but you’ve got a job to do.

Leonard Sipes: I’ve wrote an article and I sent it to you in advance to this conversation and part of it again was, not to beat a dead horse, but the mistrust that we in many places in government have. And I’m talking about 30 years of being in government and there’s this inevitable mistrust. People saying Leonard you just don’t understand that X is just out to get me. They’re being very unfair in terms of their reporting. They’re not placing facts in context and if you talk to that reporter, that reporter in many cases is saying hey I’m reporting on what I know. If you know something beyond that you need to tell me. So there’s in many cases there is this, and I know from going to a lots of parties with reporters and having reporters as friends, they refer to me as the flack. They refer to me as uh oh here comes government. They have this perception of us as being stonewalling bureaucrats in many cases so there is that mistrust there and I don’t think that that mistrust is ever going to go away. I think it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon in terms of government and media.

Ted Guest: That maybe true but I wouldn’t characterize the relationships as primarily in terms of mistrust. I would say 80 or 90% of dealings between reporters and public officials in the case of a normal day or week are sort of normal professional dealings that don’t involve mistrust. I think the problems come in when there is a story and often it’s a very big story in which there is some either a hint or a possibility of malfeasance and I think that’s where the problems come in. Just to take an example that’s common in this profession. There are always going to be cases in which a former, and someone with a criminal record, could be a former inmate, a former parole or a probationer,

Leonard Sipes: Goes out and does something terrible.

Ted Guest: That’s going to do something bad. So that’s going to happen, we’re going to report on it and I know there’s this big debate which I don’t really sympathize with about good news bad news, why don’t you people ever talk about good news, and we do talk about good news but those kinds of stories are going to come up. So, and some reporter might have, and I don’t know if this is in a category of mistrust but might have the preconceived notion, well if some one who was on probation committed another crime that means that there was a mistake made in putting the person on probation. Well it’s conceivable there was a mistake and there have been many cases in history in which people, officials, judges, professionals have said in retrospect, yes that was a mistake you know we shouldn’t have put that person on probation or parole but there is an equally good argument in many cases that yes there’s just an element of risk in life in general and that yes there was a risk taken. We take risks every day. We released X number of people, most of them thankfully don’t do anything bad when they’re on probation or parole,

Leonard Sipes: But some do, that’s inevitable.

Ted Guest: Anything meaning committing a major crime. But some do and a perfectly good answer in a hypothetical case might be yes, we took a risk, we took many risks in 2007 and some of them didn’t turn out very well and this was one of them and of course that can sound very self-serving or it could be portrayed that way. But those I think are the kinds of stories again where sometimes we get into professional disagreements or the public officials might not think they were portrayed very well. But I don’t think in most cases it’s the case of the news media coming in with a preconceived notion that someone made a terrible mistake. Although that could be the case and again sometimes mistakes were made.

Leonard Sipes: Well I always maintain that I think reporters, generally speaking, have opinions of agencies and I think that often times that spokesperson is responsible, either good or bad for that opinion of that agency. One of the things that I advocate is that agencies get out and interact with media far before something like this happening so the media has an understanding of what is going on. Has the contextual understanding of that agency or operation. I remember representing the state of Maryland. We had our home detention program and the home detention program had uniformed correctional officers and parole and probation agents armed in marked police cars and they’re out there supervising people involved in home detention and every member of the media that covered the criminal justice system in the Baltimore metropolitan area and a Washington Post reporter had ridden along on a home detention program. So when we had somebody go out and do something stupid, it wasn’t terribly stupid, but it was news worthy. It was interesting that most of the media came to our defense explaining that this is one in 500 who had been part of the program and actually promoted the program as something good and something with in our best interest. I think that’s the context that a lot of people in the criminal justice system are looking for or the government in general and I think that’s what they think is missing in a lot of coverage that contextual understanding of the situation.

Ted Guest: Yes and you’re right. You’re describing, a good practice would be to basically know the media in your area and make sure to the best of your ability that they do have this background information. I remember on the other side of the spectrum. I remember running into one state corrections director a few years ago at a social event, at a conference who basically told me Mr. Guest I never talk to the media because all they want to do is negative stories. Well I think I told this gentleman and certainly what I feel is that’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy because if you start from the idea you’re never going to talk to the media. What that means is the only time they will call you probably is when there is a big problem and it’s sort of a vicious circle and so if this man is never going to talk, probably the only time I’m going to call him is when there’s let’s say a riot in the prison or an escape because I know I think if I call him just on a random day and say hey I would like to do a story on one of your rehabilitation programs. If that’s really his policy that he’s not going to talk to the media I might as well not make that call. So, yeah and again as you said it doesn’t mean even if the best effort you make to prepare the media you’re still going to get occasionally a negative story because someone is going to screw up sometime but again that’s part of the game.

Leonard Sipes: And again that’s inevitable. I mean government is not perfect. Lord knows governments not perfect and we’re going to make our fair share of mistakes. I think with people from our end, all we’re looking for is the context. Placing it in its proper context and I think that all of what you guys are looking for is access and fairness and some information about your program and not being unjustifiably jerked around.

Ted Guest: Right.

Leonard Sipes: I think that’s the heart and soul of public relations and I think that sums up 80, 90% of public relations right there in terms of what I’ve just said.

Ted Guest: One thing I just wanted to add to what I’ve said before. This thing about good news or bad news. It’s not true that the media never do so called good news stories. In fact I deliberately ran one in my digest the other day in which there was a story out of Tennessee about a, I think it was a graduation ceremony for some convicts who had been through a rehabilitation program and how one of them had won an award because he had got the job and stayed out of trouble and the media did do a story. Now was that on the front page, no it probably wasn’t, but it was a positive story and a lot of people say why don’t you do more of those stories well one answer is that sometimes they can be hard to do because as we know a lot of the possible figures in those stories actually don’t want publicity.

Leonard Sipes: No news is good news, I’ve heard that like 500 million times in 30 years.

Ted Guest: Yeah and but a lot of people as we all know who have been through these programs actually don’t want publicity because if they’ve gotten their life back together that’s wonderful but they probably don’t want a story about how as a former convict they’ve finally have gotten a job. You know they don’t want to jeopardize this so but still it is still true and I’ll just say it flat out here. We are going to do more stories that you might classify as bad news stories. But for the same reason that when the plane crashed,

Leonard Sipes: That’s the nature of news.

Ted Guest: We do the stories about the plane crash we don’t do the story about all the planes that didn’t crash and it’s basically the same principal.

Leonard Sipes: It’s the nature of the news and I think from the government’s point of view that as long as it’s placed in the context it’s fine. It’s pretty easy to generalize. It’s pretty easy to simply say this is wrong and link it to 5 or 6 or 7 other unrelated things. I think people in government are simply looking for fairness and journalist are simply looking for access and not being jerked around. I still think that that’s the bottom line behind 80% of public relations

Ted Guest: Right.

Leonard Sipes: Ted Guest the president of Criminal Justice Journalist, former editor of US News and the World Report. If you’re looking for again a dynamite news summation, every single working day of the week, the best news summation on crime and justice, Google Criminal Justice Journalists and you can get yourself on that list. You don’t have to be a journalist to get on the list. Ladies and gentlemen this is D.C. Public Safety. I want you to have yourselves a very pleasant day.

(Audio Ends)

Share