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The police blotter is among the most popular features in the Denver Daily News, and Daniel Williams is the reason. Weekdays for over three years, Williams has trekked to the tiny press room at the Denver Police Department's Cherokee Street headquarters to page through reports, and until recently, he found plenty of fodder: minor incidents, major felonies, and everything in between. But beginning about six months ago, the number and variety of reports fell off precipitously. The stack went from an average of 150 documents per day, by Williams's reckoning, to a mere handful, and the ones available tended toward the trivial — stolen credit cards, lost cell phones — with the most significant offenses often missing entirely.
"Every day in Denver, there'll be a burglary or robbery of a business and six or seven serious assaults," Williams says. "These are facts: You can check my police reports to prove it. Then, suddenly, there's nothing. And those things just didn't stop happening."
Maybe not, but TV, radio and print reporters no longer heard about many of them — and all because of what representatives from the DPD and City Hall say are computer upgrades intended to make life easier and more efficient for police officers, the general public and journalists alike.
In late January, following a steady rain of complaints from folks at assorted news agencies, the DPD began placing a log of barebones case listings in the press room, and Lieutenant Ron Saunier, who supervises the department's public information officers, began e-mailing similar data to assorted media members shortly thereafter. But Williams is far from impressed by the new procedure. "It doesn't make any sense," he maintains. "It's a terrible idea."
The changes were necessitated by Denver's implementation of a new Versadex Records Management System. According to Jeremy Bronson, who served until recently as a special assistant to Denver mayor John Hickenlooper and the city's DPD liaison, the RMS should help the department move away from a paper-based approach. "Up until 2007, an officer on the street would respond to a report of a crime and fill out a paper offense-report form, and that would go to the records bureau in the department, where someone would type in information," Bronson notes. "But throughout last year, we switched to officers having laptops in their cars. They type the information into the laptops, which are connected wirelessly to the Records Management System. That enables the RMS to be populated in real time."
The advantages the RMS offers the department are obvious, and Bronson touts a benefit for the citizenry as a whole: Denvergov.org/DenverMaps/CrimeMapping, a page on the city's website. Internet users can seek out crime figures by neighborhood, park, school and so on. Too bad this tool is of little use to reporters. The site is a bit glitchy — and even if everything works perfectly, the listings only display a few basics: date, time, general location and type of crime. In contrast, the old police reports sported the names of the individuals involved plus a narrative — a description that immediately let journalists know if the occurrence was intriguing or routine.
Bronson says staffers working on the RMS understood they needed to come up with a way for reporters to access more complete reports, but he's not certain why a strategy wasn't in place before the transition began. As for Saunier, he points to the task's complexity. In the past, he notes, "someone physically had to look at each report and redact information in the narrative that we have to remove under state law" — names of juveniles or sexual assault victims, Social Security numbers, etc. The technical crew was asked to streamline this practice, and finding a fix proved daunting. At one point, Saunier says they thought they'd licked the problems; then, during a test, he discovered that victims of a homicide and a suicide had been identified in reports before next of kin was notified, precipitating another delay. During this period, he speculates that records personnel may have filled the press room with copies of paper reports filled out by people who came into the office to report minor crimes. If so, that would explain why sheets about petty matters continued to reach scribes, while the serious stuff vanished.
In the meantime, reporters and editors were left to wonder what was going on — and recognizing a link between the press-room developments and the RMS required a very long memory. Sarah Huntley, the former assistant city editor for the Rocky Mountain News, who recently became the public information officer for the Boulder Police Department, says Chief of Police Gerry Whitman "gave the media a heads-up two and a half or three years ago that they were going to this system. They were trying to determine which media outlets checked the reports on a regular basis and what kind of impact it might have." Still, she didn't make the connection between the RMS and the shrinking stacks until she asked Saunier about it during a meeting on another topic last fall.
This dearth of communication naturally spawned conspiracy theories. Indeed, Denver Daily News editor Tad Rickman admits that the vague explanations he received from DPD public-information officer Sonny Jackson made him wonder if the city was trying to artificially burnish its reputation by tinkering with crime statistics prior to August's Democratic National Convention. Rocky Mountain News assistant city editor Luke Clarke doesn't go that far, but even if serious crimes weren't being filtered out on purpose, he feels that "the net effect ends up being the same whether they intend it or not. It's not consistent with open government, which I believe to be Mayor Hickenlooper's policy." Denver Post public affairs editor Chuck Murphy sounds similar concerns. The shortage of reports "forced us to rely on spokespeople for the police department and others a lot more than I would like," he concedes. "I would prefer that Sonny Jackson not edit the metro section."
The new press-room log and regular e-mailing is a step up in at least one respect: Big crimes are part of the mix. But there are drawbacks as well. The listings appear sans narratives because, Saunier says, all that detail would make the piles (and files) enormous — although why that's any different from the modus operandi six months ago is unclear. He promises to provide PDFs of fuller reports to media types who request them by case number, but journos will have to guess what's interesting from the names of those involved or offense types, which are often mighty broad. As the Rocky's Clarke notes, the sex-assault category encompasses everything from serial rapists to guys exposing themselves. While reporters could make sure they're not missing the good stuff by requesting copies of just about everything, Clarke's not ready to declare war quite yet. "I could justify doing it," he says, "but I don't want to overwhelm them."
The Boulder police's methodology represents a modest upgrade over the DPD's. Each morning, PIO Huntley creates a call-report log as colleague Julie Brooks assembles a blotter that summarizes items that may be of interest to the media — and both are placed online at www.boulder-police.com. If the DPD came up with something similar — or, better yet, launched a secure media site with the narratives included — the press would be pleased. But Saunier isn't ready to commit to anything so ambitious. Already, he'll be expected to serve as a middleman for journalists wanting reports — potentially a very time-consuming process. "I need to figure out if it's a manageable deal," Saunier says. "If it becomes way too demanding, we'll look at something different."
For now, Clarke and Murphy are withholding judgment about the new system until they get more staff feedback — but Williams sees more minuses than plusses. During February's first week, he says no log appeared in the press room at all, and he only got two e-mailed PDFs, as opposed to one for each day. Worse, he had no idea what cases were hidden gems because they lacked narratives — and when he took a shot and requested some files from PIO Jackson anyway, the PDFs didn't arrive for nearly two days.
Williams is frustrated, to put it mildly. Already his paper is running the police blotter less frequently, and he feels the new, improved set-up "makes it a lot tougher for writers and reporters." After a pause, he adds, "Maybe that's part of the whole plan."