| November 24, 2008 | 12:01pm
Readers kept in dark?
New police system hampers journalists
Monday, November 24
The public is at a disadvantage to obtain valuable information related to crime thanks to a new police reporting system implemented by the Denver Police Department, say journalists and community groups.
Since September 2007 when the Denver Police Department stopped allowing the media and public to view a complete collection of incident reports -- narrative and all -- information related to police activity has slowed to a trickle. Some are even suggesting dubious behavior, that the police department is purposely making the reporting process difficult so that it does not have to share specific details that could be damaging to the department. Or simply that it does not want the public to know the extent of crime in the city's neighborhoods.
There was once a time -- not too long ago -- that people like the Denver Daily News' readers had access to a listing of all crime throughout the city. Paper police reports were made available to the local media at the police headquarters. The reports included a complete narrative of the incident, as well as witness, suspect and victim information. Media outlets took the information to compile trends and report specific, important incidents, such as murders, high-profile robberies and assaults. News organizations filtered the information so as to not print the name of a victim or witness who might be in danger. Sometimes the police department itself redacted that sensitive information.
But just over a year ago, all that changed in an effort to go digital, explained safety records coordinator Mary Dulacki. As the city was moving toward a sustainable, green movement, the paper reports disappeared. Journalists were given no notice as the paper reports started dwindling. What once used to be a complete database, turned into records with a slew of deleted information.
Eventually, the paper records disappeared altogether for a daily, electronic report log. Journalists at first were excited, hoping this new system would allow them access to media reports right from their office computers, similar to jurisdictions like Colorado Springs and Boulder. But the local media soon learned that it would be much more difficult to inform its readers about crime trends and incidents. The daily log only includes basic information such as the type of crime and where it took place. To get more specific information, journalists need to follow-up and ask for specific reports. But as Westword staff writer Jared Jacang Maher explains, the process became more of a hunt than anything else. Without the narrative, Maher found himself requesting dozens of reports at a time just to see what might be worthwhile.
"The most frustrating thing is that over the course of the last year, I've felt like there's been a slow ratcheting down of our ability to be able to access police incident reports, which for a reporter and anyone who wants to cover crime as it occurs daily in Denver, you need to be able to have that access," said Maher.
Still, Maher and other reporters took on the burden, requesting dozens of reports so that they could make sure to give the public a complete and specific listing of crime incidents and trends throughout the city. But then in early September, immediately following the Democratic National Convention, the Denver Police Department's public information officers transferred the report retrieval system to Dulacki and the Manager of Safety's office. In November, Dulacki began charging $10 for every report requested, making it almost impossible for reporters to access the information they need to effectively report to the public.
Expensive, late and lacking info
Maher once waited 12 hours for two police reports. The cost was $20 but the two reports only amounted to four pages, $5 per page. It costs 8 cents to copy a black and white page at any FedEx Office in the Denver area.
Maher pointed out that media organizations, just like the general public, are facing hard economic times. Paying $10 per report is simply not in the budget.
One of the Denver Post's crime reporters, Kirk Mitchell, said he shares the frustration.
"On the one side, you do get the information electronically and it comes right to your desk," he said. "On the other hand, there's so little information offered that most often you don't have enough for a story."
In some situations, Mitchell has been unable to even acquire detailed information for serious crimes like rape.
"In many ways it's not accomplishing even the minimum of what you would expect from a public reporting system of crime," he said of the Denver police system.
Police ignore media
A handful of media organizations have complained to police officials and offered alternatives. But requests for meetings have gone unanswered.
Compared to other towns and cities, Denver is behind the times. Colorado Springs, for one, offers a daily online police blotter, which allows officers to input information related to crime, calls for service and other tactical information. The blotter includes a narrative. Boulder also offers a blotter, which PIO Sarah Huntley updates daily. A former reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, Huntley includes information that she believes reporters and the public are interested in. The information ranges from homicides to quirky incidents. In addition, the department also sends out a daily call log for reporters to review. If a reporter or member of the public wants an actual copy of the full incident report, the cost is only $4 for the first five pages and 25 cents for each page after that -- a sharp difference compared to Denver's fee structure.
"I think the blotter, which includes any case -- even active investigations -- between that and the call log, it's more comprehensive," said Huntley.
Overwhelmed in Denver?
Dulacki points out, however, that Denver can see hundreds of incidents a day.
"It can be thousands of pages to be going through every day. I'd need a staff of 20 people here for that," she explained, pointing out that each report needs to be redacted so that sensitive information is not accidentally released to the public.
Dulacki added that the department does not use a set template for its electronic reports, which means each report looks different, adding to complications. It can also get difficult when multiple news agencies are each calling about different cases, she said.
But Art Way with the Colorado Progressive Coalition said the Denver Police Department had better find a way to make all of its arrest narratives available to the public at a nominal cost if it is to claim to be a transparent, open department.
"It ties into accountability," he said. "We want to be able to hold our public officials accountable for their actions. When they hide public records, it appears to me that they have something to hide. Like they're worried about everything being out on the table."