Police Chief Takes To Facebook To Complain About A Journalist Committing Journalism
from the a-new-era-of-beef-is-upon-us dept
Cops and the press can be best friends. In some cases, they are. Anytime an officer shoots or beats someone, at least one obliging outlet steps up to publish the department’s statement as well as any criminal history they’ve been able to dig up on the shooting/beating victim. And if the police aren’t willing to turn over criminal records, some outlets will do the heavy lifting for them.
But they can also be antagonists. Generally speaking, law enforcement is a closed shop. It usually takes diligent efforts by journalists to pry loose documents pertaining to misconduct or misbehavior. State laws tend to make this more difficult than it should be by granting law enforcement agencies tons of public records exemptions.
It’s this strained relationship being highlighted in an incredibly ill-advised Facebook post by the Aurora (IL) Police Department, penned by police chief Kristen Ziman. As Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery pointed out on Twitter, it’s not every day you witness a police department berate a journalist for practicing journalism.
The department’s Facebook post opens up with some speculation about the journalist’s intentions:
For six months, a reporter at a local newspaper has been seeking essentially the complete case file of the tragic incident where a young man took his own life after exchanging gunshots with an Aurora Police officer in October, 2016. Both the reporter and the publication were especially interested in the officer’s dash cam video of the traffic stop that began the entire episode in an apparent attempt to disprove its justification. (The publication wrote an editorial on March 26, 2017, calling into question the officer’s actions and our explanation of events.) You can see the stop and events that led up to it on this post.
After pausing to note the state attorney general ruled in the department’s favor in the dispute over the unreleased documents (and to praise the officer involved for his bravery and clearance of wrongdoing by the Illinois State Police investigation), Chief Ziman goes on to gripe at length about pesky journalists and public records requests. (Emphasis added.)
Aside from the video of the traffic stop, the reporter’s voluminous FOIA request included requests on all past contacts we had with Mr. Martell; past contacts we had with the driver of the car from which the original traffic stop initiated and that Mr. Martell had run from; and other detailed information on witnesses or other parties in the case. We denied the release of much of the information because doing so would have possibly identified witnesses or other bystanders— something I find unacceptable as Chief of Police.
This is not the first request from this particular reporter that requires dozens and dozens of employee hours to fulfill. In fact, this is a regular practice for her— many of which consist of hundreds of pages. When a FOIA request is filed, there is certain information we cannot release by law. Each FOIA filed with the police is reviewed by at least three people: the FOIA officer who assures the request is within legal parameters, a trained records clerk who redacts information that cannot be released, and an investigations supervisor who reviews the documents to assure nothing is released that shouldn’t be.
While I understand FOIA’s enhance openness and public transparency, many of the FOIA’s this reporter files don’t result in published articles. The hours the city has worked to fulfill her FOIA requests has cost taxpayers and resulted in police supervisors devoting their time on FOIA requests rather than concentrating on our crime fighting initiatives. The demand for trust between the community and the police is prolific. At some point, there has to be a trusting relationship between the media and the police.
First off, while it may be a pain to fulfill requests, the law allows citizens to file them. The state is obligated to fulfill them. Listening to someone complain about a singular aspect of their job directly related to accountability doesn’t exactly affirm a stated commitment to accountability.
Further, the post insinuates records requests by this reporter are resulting in less crime fighting. This post invites the public to view the reporter as an impediment to efficient law enforcement, rather than someone simply doing her job as a journalist using tools the state has given her.
More statements made by Chief Ziman on Twitter distance her further from her supposed embrace of accountability. She mentions she doesn’t care for the “fishing expedition mentality,” but that’s exactly what journalism is. It’s seeking documents and info until enough is compiled to put an article together. The fact that some requested documents are never used by journalists does not make those requests any less valid.
Finally, the Facebook post says “there has to be a trusting relationship between the media and police.” No, there absolutely does not. This is completely wrong. Journalism is nothing more than stenography if it allows government agencies to steer narratives and coverage. Chief Ziman seems to think reporters should accept every statement made by police officials at face value, rather than seek underlying documents. That’s not trust. That’s obeisance. It’s worthless in the context of transparency and accountability.
Chief Ziman would rather be allowed to release only the documents she wants to release on a schedule that’s convenient to her and her department. The problem is journalists, like the one she publicly berates here, keep getting in the way of her idealized trusting relationship with the press. The government needs more outside skepticism, not less, to keep it in line. Law enforcement officials complaining about lawful activity is always a bad look, especially when they’re not being given the trust they’re so obviously willing to undermine.