The relationship between journalists and police officers is a complex one, and while both often investigate the same crimes, this doesn’t necessarily result in a good working rapport. In fact, both reporters and police admit the relationship has become strained in recent years. Often, neither the cops who deal with the crime, nor the reporters who cover it feel comfortable around one another, and at times they can even seem to be working at cross-purposes. Crimes Seen: Cops and Reporters on the Beat was an attempt to address this problem.
The Journalism Alumni Association hosted the informal get-together at Cheers Pub Thursday, Feb. 23. The event brought together crime reporters and graduates of Concordia’s journalism program with retired senior investigators from the Montreal police force.
The town hall-style meeting offered police and reporters the opportunity to candidly voice their concerns, free from the pressures that both parties are under when they usually see one another.
The two former policemen in attendance were Andre Bouchard, a 34-year veteran of the Montreal police force and former Commander of its Major Crimes Unit, and John Gauthier, a 30-year veteran of the force and a Detective Sergeant from Major Crimes.
The third panelist was Gazette reporter Paul Cherry, who’s been working on the Montreal crime beat in one way or another since he was hired in 1997.
The room was full of journalists and, as would be expected, the questions started as soon as the panelists were introduced.
“What makes a good crime reporter?” asked Frederic Serre, one of the Alumni organizers, and a former reporter at the Chronicle for eight years.
“My opinion of a good journalist is someone who gets up off his ass and comes to the scene to talk to us,” said Bouchard. “He doesn’t just pick up the phone the next day to call me and ask what happened after I’ve been out there all night.”
“When I started on the force, [reporters and police] intermingled in the lounge downtown,” said Gauthier. “Because of this, they understood our jobs and there was great camaraderie.”
“Wouldn’t that be a little too cozy a relationship for journalists to have with the cops?” a CBC Radio correspondent interjected.
“There’s no such thing as too close,” replied Bouchard. “Both the police and the reporters know what their jobs are, and they’re professional. The reporters wrote what they had to, and that’s the way it should be.”
Bouchard said that far from being too intimately connected, it’s journalists’ lack of access to police that’s the real problem. He said police departments are becoming more and more selective with information they give out, similar to a corporation, and it’s harder and harder to get the facts.
“It scares me today how they close the curtains and you have to go through 27 people to get the information you need,” he said. “Why not go straight to the guy who was there?”
Cherry said the lack of access can be discouraging for a working journalist.
“It’s more interesting to cover a homicide in a little town in the South Shore than in the city of Montreal, because in the city you get nothing,” he said.
But the former investigators both agreed that there are problems on the side of the journalists too. Gauthier said some reporters lose sight of the big picture in their zeal to get the story at any cost.
“They’re not looking for the greater good,” said Gauthier. “They’re looking for what’s good for them right now.”
Bouchard recalled incidents where reporters crossed police boundaries and walked over evidence to begin questioning victims before their statements had been taken by investigators. “We call that contaminating the evidence,” he said. “You can lose a case because of things like that.”
This kind of disregard for the sensitive nature of police work can affect an officer’s opinion of journalists for a long time, said Bouchard.
Cherry stressed the importance of understanding the constraints police work under and not interfering in their work.
“It’s about trust and respect,” said Cherry. “When I show up at a crime scene I don’t get in the way of police. I let them do their jobs, and I wait to talk with the lead investigator.”
Bouchard agreed, and added that if reporters want to be respected by the police, they should do their homework before asking questions.
“If you start to show that you have some knowledge,” said Bouchard, “then the officer thinks, ‘I can work with this journalist. I don’t have to explain the whole situation to him from scratch.'”
Gauthier said he believed crime reporters were better informed and were more likely to be plugged in to what was going on in the communities around them when he began policing.
“They sometimes knew things that were happening even before we did,” he said.
Gauthier said some journalists are also unfairly critical of police, and tend to jump to conclusions and pin blame before the facts are known. He said this is especially true in cases where someone has been injured or killed during an arrest.
“I have to prepare my cops for anything,” said Gauthier. “[The next day] the media comes at you from every angle, and you don’t know where they’re going with it.”
Though Bouchard and Gauthier no longer work the police beat, the knowledge they imparted is valuable to those who cover crime stories. Journalists who better understand the nature of police work will be better equipped to establish the kind of mutually respectful working relationship so necessary for good crime reporting. Then, perhaps the lines of communication will be reopened, with the public the ultimate beneficiary.
Additional Reporting By Megan Breckenridge