Politics & Policy

Missing the Crime Beat

Ferguson police talk with demonstrators in August. (Getty)
Most of today’s reporters have never covered police day-to-day — and it shows.

The generally abysmal media coverage of the Ferguson tragedy has raised one major question among those of us who once practiced the journalistic trade: Doesn’t anybody cover the cop shop any more?

It was clear from much of the coverage that few of those assigned to the story knew very much about the law, and that they knew even less about how cops do their jobs. Time was, every genuine news organization had at least one often-grizzled and highly cynical veteran of covering the police beat, who would have suggested that it might not be good or accurate to refer to someone caught on camera pulling a strong-arm robbery as a “gentle giant.”

I spent the first decade of my career as a full-time police reporter for a daily newspaper — an experience that H. L. Mencken once characterized as “the maddest, gladdest, damndest existence ever enjoyed by mortal youth.”

Like political reporters who need to understand the legislative process, and science reporters called upon to pontificate on the Higgs boson, it was necessary in covering the cop shop to know how and why the police did what they did. That entailed countless midnight hours leaning on the jail booking desk and chasing scanner calls on the street.

Just one veteran police reporter in Ferguson would have known immediately why Officer Wilson responded as he did when Michael Brown, as described by Wilson and innumerable witnesses, leaped on him in the confined front seat of his car. Police reporters know what policemen and some criminals also know: that a cop is always fighting one-handed because he has to protect his gun.

Police reporters also know that no cop wants to get into a scrape, fatal or not. The paperwork alone is enormous. The myth of rogue policemen out hunting for minorities to abuse is nonsense. In fact, these days most cops will go out of their way to avoid such confrontations because they know what can follow, and that none of it is good.

As a young reporter, I disabused myself of any remaining fallacies about human nature under the guidance of older reporters, some crusty old police sergeants, and the homicide and vice squads. One night near the end of the evening shift, I was chatting with a patrolman on a quiet corner when he was dispatched to a possible robbery in progress at a convenience store just a few blocks away. We arrived together to find the clerk, his wife, and their five-year-old son lying slaughtered in the back room. The mother was in her final convulsions, lying in a porridge of blood and brain that was all that was left of a family.

It’s a bit hard to find another side to a story like that.

Over a decade, I was present on a number of occasions when cops fired their weapons, including one case when an officer I knew well was forced to kill an armed robber who drew a gun on him from a distance of three feet. I remember sitting with him in the homicide office at 3:00 a.m. listening to his grief and distress. Another policeman who was forced to kill an armed suspect later told me, “That man sits at the foot of my bed every night.” I never knew a cop who regarded the use of lethal force as anything but the most serious of matters.

Policemen and old police reporters have a saying about someone whose actions result in his own demise: He bought his ticket. As sad as it is, the person most responsible for Michael Brown’s death was and is Michael Brown. It’s a shame there were no tough old police reporters in Ferguson to see that.

— Mike Brake is a longtime journalist, writer, and editor in Oklahoma. He was a speechwriter for Governor Frank Keating.

Mike Brake spent the 1970s covering the police beat in Oklahoma City and was later a speechwriter for Oklahoma governor Frank Keating. He edited the best-selling oral history of the Oklahoma City bombing.

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