D.C. is a crap town for public records. Especially police reports. I moved here from Seattle, where I could go down to the station and peruse stacks of reports. The Stranger, where I worked, based a weekly column off the documents, which were all written out with long, descriptive narratives. In D.C., there ain’t no way a reporter could just page through the reports. I asked my first day here and I think the clerk nearly climbed over the counter to slap me. Some reporters listen to the scanner all night and follow cruisers to crime scenes, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll get the good blotter fodder (you need the back story, which you don’t get behind police tape) unless you just get lucky and the police decide to issue a press release. Or unless you’re Jason Cherkis.
So, like many reporters, I’ve turned to the various neighborhood and police district list-serves. They send out brief arrest summaries, which range from vague to vaguely specific. The Fifth District is pretty bad:
Homicide Knife, Cutting Instrument
SHIFT: DAY 10/10/2008 0700 0707
1700 B/O 3RD ST NW, Street/Highway/Road 501 08144117
The Third District is better:
C-1 REPORTS THAT S-1 THRU S-3 APPROACHED HER BY THE LISTED LOCATION. S-1 STATED “THAT’S AN UGLY DOG, I SHOULD BEAT YOUR DOG.” S-1 THEN STATED “GIVE ME ALL THE MONEY IN YOUR POCKET.” C-1 RAN AWAY FROM THE SUSPECTS. SUSPECTS FLED IN AN UNKNOWN DIRECTION.
Pretty good stuff. But still not enough info to go find more info, and of course the police would explain that as protecting the privacy rights of the victims. (Although I bet most of the victims wouldn’t mind talking to a reporter about how the police handled their situation — another reason why the reports should be made available, if not necessarily widely disseminated.)
Anyway, I’ve noticed something interesting in the discussions on these list serves that gives me a little hope. Residents have been lambasting the police for not putting enough info in the online summaries. So when a guy from Cleveland Park sent a message to the list about getting robbed by two men in an SUV while he biked home one night, and mentioned that police had told him there had been a string of similar incidents, someone else emailed asking for more info. That got a response from the district commander—who basically said there had been other robberies—who in turn got criticized by another resident for not alerting the community sooner. This is the same district commander who has never returned my phone calls.
I haven’t noticed much push back from local media to get better access to public documents. Maybe in this case the people will do our job for us.