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Talking about Buffalo police

I participated today in a live chat on buffalo.com, talking about my coverage of the Buffalo police suppressing crime information. Here's a link to the dialog.

I also did a live interview on the Shredd & Regan show this afternoon on 103.3-FM, The Edge. You can download an audio file of the interview here.

I'll also did an appearance Thursday on Reason, a talk radio show hosted by Scott Leffler on WECK-AM 1230. Here's the link to the audio. I'm about 15 minutes into the program.

Meanwhile, The News will have continuing coverage in Thursday's paper. I'll blog something, as well.

Q&A with Buffalo News police reporters

I've got a story in today's paper, a follow on Tuesday's blog post, on efforts by the Buffalo Police Department to suppress crime news. Here's a companion Q&A with Vanessa Thomas and T.J. Pignataro, who are The News' two primary police reporters.

Vanessa has worked the day shift for the past six years. T.J. has covered nights for more than five years. They work out of a press office in Buffalo police headquarters and often report from crime scenes. I interviewed them Tuesday about the way police brass have been making it harder for them to do their job informing the public. They collaborated on their answers, and thus speak as one.

The police department brass has taken a couple of steps to restrict your access to information and personnel. What do you think has triggered that?

"The mayor appears to be focused on maintaining a positive image of the city as much as possible and control the flow of information. When the mayor took office and appointed his top police brass, there seemed to be an underlying quest to make the city appear to be as safe a possible.

"For example, the mayor's spokesman, Peter Cutler, once tried to tell one of us what the lead of the story should be, and insisted what information should be put at the bottom of the story.

"A few months into the Brown administration, access to police supervisors was eliminated. Then, it was reduced further after the March 2007 appointment of Mike DeGeorge as spokesman. Only DeGeorge, Commissioner Gipson and the two deputy commissioners were authorized to speak with the press.

"The move didn't only upset reporters. It also upset police supervisors who were long trusted to speak with the media. They were also upset because information was being filtered and diluted from police brass, lacked important details and was sometimes inaccurate."

Talk about the changes in incident reports you use as the starting point for reporting crime.

"Within the past few months, incident reports have been pared to absolute bare bones. Often times, they lack the address of the incident, time of the incident, victim's age and address and significant details about the alleged crime.

"Police officials say they moved this information to a different computer database in the department, however, reporters aren't permitted access to this database."

How has that made your job more difficult?

"As the result of the change in the police department's policy and the changes in the incident reports, reporters are forced to take the additional step of contacting DeGeorge to get even the most basic facts about the crime.

"Some reporters covering the police beat say they are sometimes unable to reach DeGeorge to get these essential details. It's impractical to assume he would be available 24/7."

The commissioner has also ordered officers and everyone below the rank of deputy commissioner not to talk to reporters. How has that played out?

"It basically means that the officers doing the investigations and with first-hand knowledge of the cases are silenced.

"As the result, reporters now get information filtered by only a very select few at the top.

"Also, some officers have expressed frustration about having their ability to talk to reporters eliminated and resent when the police brass don't portray the "true story" especially as they know it to be as the case investigators."

How does access and transparency compare with when Tony Masiello was mayor and Rocco Diina was commissioner?

"The previous administration allowed allowed reporters to interview everyone from officers to detectives, detective sergeants, lieutenants, captains, inspectors, chiefs, etc. at crime scenes, at their stations, on their cell phones and so on.

"We had around the clock access and supervisors were trusted to release information to the press at their discretion. There was an expectation that officers shouldn't reflect badly on the police department when being interviewed by reporters."

Buffalo police suppressing crime info

Somewhere in the city Saturday night, two men got into an argument. It escalated into a gang beating involving 10 other men. The beating was a bad one and, as the police incident report said, the victim was bandaged up afterwards.

Normally, this would be worth a brief in the paper. Not a murder, but newsworthy nonetheless.

Ditto for a Rite Aid employee who was caught with five bottles of prescription drugs in his pants pockets. The police report said the employee was intending on stealing them and selling on the street.

Again, newsworthy.

I came across these two reports while covering the police beat Sunday. Neither report made it into the paper, however. It's the byproduct of an effort by the Buffalo Police Department over the past couple of months to cut back on the information included in incident reports made available to the press.

This follows a series of incidents over the past year-and-a-half that have involved, among other things, Deputy Commissioner Daniel Derenda (I originally had the first name wrong) storming into the press office at Police HQ to confront a reporter about a story in the works, Mayor Byron Brown lobbying to get a crime story killed, his press secretary suggesting a lead on a story and police officials demanding that The News clear crime items before publishing them.

Along the way, Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson has wondered aloud in front of a reporter as to why he should make it "easy" for the press to do its job and Brown raised the specter of limiting The News' access to routine police reports.

The News is able to access incident and arrest reports via a computer in a press office in Police HQ. Last year department officials threatened to deny The News continued access to these reports. They became especially irate after we ran a story in October 2007 detailing how the police failed to alert the public about a serial predator who had been terrorizing old people in the Broadway-Fillmore area. The next business day, we were informed we were losing our computer access to police reports.

The department backed off its threat after a face-to-face meeting between the mayor and our editor, Margaret Sullivan, who was, and remains, strong in her belief that the press requires continued access to police records to inform the public. I guess the mayor didn't like the prospect of being tagged in the paper as restricting the public's right to know.

But that didn't end the administration's effort to limit what the police share with the press, and therefore, the public. Instead, routine information is now often omitted from incident reports. It's been going on for a couple of months now.

I've covered police on and off for more than 20 years and I've never seen such incomplete reports as I did Sunday. I quizzed some of my colleagues, who say the same thing. A lot less information, a lot less cooperation filling in the blanks.

In the case of the aforementioned gang beating, no location was mentioned in the report, aside from the police district it occurred in. No address on the victim. Bare bones.

As for the drug theft, the report said it occurred at a Rite Aid. No store address. No address on the defendant, either. Again, not a whole lot to work with.

Until a couple of months ago, police reports routinely included the address of the crime scene. We also got the address of defendants charged with crime, usually with an age or date of birth. Enough to write a respectable brief, maybe even a short story.

This lack of information would not be as much of a problem if the reporter could pick up the phone and talk to the cops. But the department imposed an edict in March 2007 precluding all but a handful of police department employees from talking to reporters. Not even most higher-ups are permitted to talk.

Precinct lieutenants? No. The lieutenant who runs homicide? Not without permission. Rank-and-file cops, the ones who really know what is going on? You've got to be kidding?! Even the technicians who input the reports have been told to not provide reporters with even the most basic information, such as street addresses, if we come looking for missing details.

The only ones authorized to speak to reporters are Mike DeGeorge, the department's civilian spokesman, and Gipson and his two deputy commissioners. DeGeorge has become the go-to guy, but the problem is, when reporters call him, he often knows less than we do.

Sometimes he gets the information. Sometimes quickly. Sometimes not so quickly. Problem is, we're in the business of news, not history, especially in this era of instant news via the Web.

(My own experience with DeGeorge: The last two times I called him, including Monday, to discuss this post, he failed to return the call).

We didn't abuse the access we had to reports. We keep the names of sex crime victims out of the paper. Ditto for many elderly victims. And we use discretion when it comes to naming other crime victims and where they live. We're mindful of protecting victims and witnesses and not compromising ongoing investigations.

How we use the details contained in the crime reports was never an issue in discussions The News had with police and administration officials. Implied throughout this process it that it's largely a matter that officials in City Hall and Police HQ don't like some of the stories we've written and they'd like to see less crime news in the paper. And one way of doing that is making it harder for reporters to do their jobs. Limit their access to people, put less information in the paperwork.

This tactic runs counter to the trend nationwide, where a growing number of police departments are making more and more crime information available to the press and public, often via the Web.

Oil prices, climate change, etc.

On the energy and global warming front:

Globalization may have met its match in the form of high energy prices, according to this NY Times story.

Cheap oil, the lubricant of quick, inexpensive transportation links across the world, may not return anytime soon, upsetting the logic of diffuse global supply chains that treat geography as a footnote in the pursuit of lower wages ...

Many economists argue that globalization will not shift into reverse even if oil prices continue their rising trend. But many see evidence that companies looking to keep prices low will have to move some production closer to consumers.

The Jet Propulsion Laborary at the California Institute of Technology has put up a catchy, informative site on climate change. The lab is a NASA center staffed and managed by Caltech, as it is known.

Gristmill, the environmental blog, describes the site like this:

It offers a nice summary of the relevant science in a variety of areas: key indicators, evidence, causes, effects, uncertainties, and solutions. The website is a good place to send people who are uninformed on global warming, but looking for basic information. 

NY Times columnist Paul Krugman on the politics behind the debate over what to do about global warming.

In themselves, limits on offshore drilling are only a modest-sized issue. But the skirmish over drilling is the opening stage of a much bigger fight over environmental policy. What’s at stake in that fight, above all, is the question of whether we’ll take action against climate change before it’s utterly too late.

Read and react.

Do as I say ...

It seems Gov. Paterson isn't practicing the fiscal restraint he seeks from others.

This from the Rochester D&C:

Paterson's executive chamber spent nearly $1.4 million more in the first quarter of the fiscal year than former Gov. Eliot Spitzer did in the first quarter of last year's budget, a review of state records shows.

And Paterson has bumped up his staff since taking office March 17, adding six more workers to the executive branch for 202 employees — larger than the lieutenant governor and governor's offices combined under Spitzer, according to state comptroller records.

The number of executive chamber employees making more than $100,000 a year also grew, from 59 in March under Spitzer to 62 in July under Paterson.

The guv would no doubt help his case if he lead by example on this issue.

Your chance to play reporter

Three Web sites where you can dig dirt, check facts and look up useful information on state and local government:

The Empire Center for New York State Policy, part of the non-partisan and non-profit Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, has launched SeeThroughNY. The Policy Center said the site is "designed to become the hub of a statewide network through which taxpayers can share, analyze and compare data from counties, cities, towns, villages, school districts and public authorities throughout New York."

My colleague Tom Precious has a story in today's paper about the site.

Included in SeeThroughNY is a complete list of state  government employees, job titles and salaries; teachers’ union and superintendent contracts for almost all school districts; and the Legislature’s pork-barrel “community projects” spending for 2008-09.

The state comptroller and attorney general also have launched Web sites of late.

Project Sunlight includes information related to campaign finance, legislation, lobbying activity and state government contracts. 

Open Book New York provides an up-to-date listing of state vendor contracts and spending summaries for state agencies.

We reporters are going to have fun with the sites. No reason you taxpayers shouldn't, too. If you see something good, let me know.

Listen up, Dittoheads

Rush_limbaugh_house_2 Now I know why Rush Limbaugh is in a state of denial over global warming. It helps him sleep at night.

His oceanfront property in Palm Beach, Florida, includes five -- count 'em, five -- houses. The one he lives in is 24,000 square feet. He lives there with his cat.

He's got a half-dozen cars at his estate. Limbaugh, who consented to be interviewed for what turned out to be a relatively gentle New York Times Magazine profile, drove the reporter around in one of them, "a black Maybach 57S, which runs around $450,000 fully loaded."

You Dittoheads keep that in mind the next time he rails on the radio about his concern for the working man.

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