Sunday, April 19, 2009

Keep a Police Shack in One Police Plaza

Michael Wilson's report in today's Times that the NYPD is planning to close the existing police shack at One Police Plaza raises concerns that the department doesn't care much about being open to the news media. Of course, the long history of the police shack, a small office where news organizations post their police reporters, is not entirely a story of a heroic investigative press. Still, the shack provided an outpost of oversight in police headquarters. It ought to be maintained in some form.

As Wilson's piece recognizes, reporters in the police shack often collaborated with each other--thereby homogenizing the voices of an ostensibly competitive metropolitan press. And lifers in the police shack often identified with the cops they covered, reducing their ability to look at the NYPD with an independent eye.

Still, the NYPD's plan to close the existing police shack to create a command center should be balanced by opening a new facility, inside police headquarters, for reporters. Any plan that puts them at a greater distance from the department is a bad idea.

As a small-town police reporter in the 1970s, and as a researcher on crime coverage in the 1980s and 1990s, I know something about police reporting--and its flaws are many. It remains the one corner of journalism where one-source reporting (signified by the attribution "police said") is considered normal. Its veteran practitioners often identify with the police in all sorts of unhealthy ways. And too many crime stories exploit shock and horror for the sake of titillation and nothing more.

Despite all of these problems, we still need reporters stationed in the police headquarters. If they are on duty in One Police Plaza, there is still a better chance that they'll pick up something that helps the public understand, and when necessary investigate or criticize, the NYPD.

Len Levitt, the muckraking police reporter who used to work at Newsday, once said that today's NYPD is very much walled off from public scrutiny. That's bad in all branches of government, but it is especially harmful with an armed and powerful branch like the police.

We need more reporting on the inner workings of the NYPD, not less. The NYPD should keep a police shack open in One Police Plaza.

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