Covering the Cops

Reporting On One of Journalism's Most Exciting & Stressful Beats

NYPD pulled over in New York City
Andrew J Mohrer/Moment/Getty Images

The police beat can be one of the most challenging and rewarding in journalism. Police reporters get to cover some of the biggest breaking news stories out there, ones that land at the top of the front page, website or newscast.

But it isn't easy. Covering the crime beat is demanding and often stressful, and as a reporter, it takes time, patience and skill to get the cops to trust you enough to give you information.

So here are some steps you can follow for producing solid police stories.

Know The Sunshine Laws

Before you visit your local police precinct in search of a good story, familiarize yourself with the sunshine laws in your state. This will give you a good sense of what kind of information the police are required to provide.

Generally, any time an adult is arrested in the U.S., the paperwork associated with that arrest should be a matter of public record, meaning you should be able to access it. (Juvenile records are usually not available.) An exception might be a case involving national security.

But Sunshine Laws vary from state to state, which is why it's good to know the specifics for your area.

Visit Your Local Precinct House

You may see police activity out on the streets in your town, but as a beginner, it's probably not a good idea to try to get information from cops at the scene of a crime. And a phone call may not get you much either.

Instead, visit your local police station or precinct house. You're likely to get better results from a face-to-face encounter.

Be Polite, Respectful - But Persistent

There's a stereotype of the hard-driving reporter you've probably seen in a movie somewhere. He barges into the courthouse, DA's office or corporate boardroom and starts banging his fist on the table, shouting, "I need this story and I need it now! Out of my way."

That approach may work in some situations (though probably not many), but it definitely won't get you far with the police. For one thing, they're generally bigger than we are. And they carry guns. You're not likely to intimidate them.

So when you first visit your local police precinct to get a story, be polite and courteous. Treat the cops with respect and chances are they'll return the favor.

But at the same time, don't be intimidated. If you sense a police officer is giving you the runaround instead of real information, press your case. If that doesn't work, ask to speak to his or her superior, and see if they're more helpful.

Ask To See the Arrest Log

If you don't have a specific crime or incident in mind that you want to write about, ask to see the arrest log. The arrest log is just what it sounds like - a log of all the arrests police make, usually organized in 12- or 24-hour cycles. Scan the log and find something that looks interesting.

Get the Arrest Report

Once you've picked out something from the arrest log, ask to see the arrest report. Again, the name says it all - the arrest report is the paperwork the cops fill out when they make an arrest. Getting a copy of the arrest report will save both you and the police a lot of time because much of the information you need for your story will be on that report.

Get Quotes

Arrest reports are very helpful, but live quotes can make or break a good crime story. Interview a police officer or detective about the crime you're covering. If possible, interview the cops directly involved with the case, those who were on the scene when the arrest was made. Their quotes are likely to be much more interesting than those from a desk sergeant.

Double-Check Your Facts

Accuracy is critical in crime reporting. Getting the facts wrong in a crime story can have dire consequences. Double-check the circumstances of the arrest; details about the suspect; the nature of the charges he faces; the name and rank of the officer you interviewed, and so on.

Get Out of the Police Precinct

So you've got the basics of your story from arrest reports and interview with the cops. That's great, but in the end, crime reporting isn't just about law enforcement, it's about how your community is being affected by crime.

So always be on the lookout for opportunities to humanize your police stories by interviewing the average folks who are affected. Has an apartment complex been hit by a wave of burglaries? Interview some tenants there. Has a local store been robbed numerous times? Talk to the owner. Are local schoolkids being confronted by drug dealers on their way to school? Talk to parents, school administrators and others.

And remember, as the sergeant in TV's "Hill Street Blues" said, be careful out there. As a police reporter, it's your job to write about crime, not get caught in the middle of it.