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The story behind the story

Reporters are often asked how we come up with our story ideas.

Here's how I came up with the piece that's running on the front page of today's Buffalo News.

I wrote a story several weeks ago about Buffalo police withholding basic information from crime incident reports made available to the press. I cited one example in the lead of the story - a home invasion that happened in an unspecified location in the northeastern portion of the city.

Over the next week, I got an e-mail from the mother of one of the victims and a brother of the other. Both families were upset about the crime and none too pleased about the way the police were handling it.

Imagine how they felt, a mother whose son had a shotgun placed to his temple, a man whose brother came away feeling that the police suspected he and his roommate of staging the whole thing.

They put me in touch with the two victims, who I subsequently interviewed, first at their new apartment, then at their old digs, the scene of the crime.

Next I headed to the police precinct to get a copy of the incident report. I wanted to compare it with the incomplete report I had obtained online at police HQ downtown. The report technician at the precinct wouldn't hear of it and sent me away empty handed.

I called the chief overseeing the precinct, who also refused, telling me that, aside from the phone numbers of the victims, the report I wanted had the same information as what I had obtained at HQ. I wound up getting a copy of the report from the victims and, of course, it had a lot of additional information.

What the reports had in common, according to the victims, was incomplete and inaccurate information. One example: both reports listed the wrong name for one of the victims and the online version misspelled the name of the other victim. Pretty basic stuff done wrong.

This underscores why The News has battled the department for more complete information than what it had been providing reporters the past couple of months. Information that is a matter of public record, including addresses and birth dates, allows reporters to do the fact checking necessary to publish accurate accounts.

If the victims are to be believed - and if I didn't believe them, I wouldn't have written the story - the police essentially blew them off. A couple of college kids ripped off in a crime-ridden neighborhood, no big deal. Process the paperwork and move on.

I tried hard to give the police their say. I did get an interview with the chief of detectives downtown and the detective in the precinct who is handling the case.

I was turned down when I asked to interview the officers who originally responded to the crime scene. I was also rebuffed when I asked for witness statements, even though the state expert on the FOI Law said such a blanket denial was overreaching by the police. The reality is the police aren't actively investigating the case.

I also was turned down for statistics that showed how often police fingerprint burglary scenes, as what I had been told in an interview didn't jibe with with others familiar with police operations had told me.

While the story deals with one incident, it raises questions about how the police go about their jobs dealing with the most common of crimes. FBI stats show that of the 19,393 major crimes committed in the city in 2006, two-thirds were burglaries and larcenies.

We write a lot about police efforts to solve murders, many of them involving gang on gang, and quality-of-life problems like loud music and barking dogs. But statistics show the vast majority of crime that goes on in the city involves stealing.

And if the experience of the two colleges kids I wrote about is indicative, Buffalo police are not very diligent about trying to solve them. But I can't tell you if the response in this case is the norm or not.

I did witness an officer a couple of weeks ago who hustled to solve a robbery in my North Buffalo neighborhood. I was doing yard work and, being the nosy reporter that I am - on and off the clock - I asked the officer what was going on when he left my neighbor's house. One of her kids had hold his cell phone stolen. The officer returned to the house two more times in the next 45 minutes, the second time with the cell phone in hand. I thought that was pretty good work.

I'm hoping those of you who have been burglarized will share your story below, or, if need be, through an e-mail.

tagged

Buffalo police, crime
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