Crime and cops

Today’s lesson will point you to some resources and strategies to help you write about crime.

The first part of the lesson will help you look up New York City crime statistics, find future court appearance dates for criminal cases you may be covering (we’ll use the example of Nelson Falu, one of the young men accused in the hate crime incident in the Bronx), perform a ($65, ugh) criminal history record search for New York State (a national criminal history search is not available to journalists), access the nationwide sex offender database, and find the location of an inmate in New York State. We will discuss briefly the challenges you could face if you want to correspond with or interview an inmate; such a decision should never be taken lightly. A good lesson handout providing links to many of these resources (and much more) is provided at Jack Styczynski’s blog here. I also want to iterate that everyone is innocent until proven guilty—and that for both legal and personal reasons you need to be very careful never to overstate what you know when writing about alleged criminal acts.

To understand the work of the police in your CD, one of the best things you can do is apply for the civilian observer ride-along program. It also helps to build a trusting relationship with the community-affairs officer. Attending the precinct community council meetings will also give you a sense of the dynamic between the police and the local community, and the area’s particular challenges. If you want to cover incidents in real-time, it can help to access radio feeds from the New York police and fire departments.

When writing about crime, look for the story behind the headline or the statistic. Some of the best journalism I’ve read in recent years have been crime stories, though not of the A&E “true crime” variety. Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven is in one sense the story of a brutal murder carried out in God’s name; in a larger sense, the book is a skeptical inquiry into religious faith. Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness includes a section on a man who receives a life sentence for a marijuana-dealing conviction as a consequence of “three-strikes-you’re-out” laws. Sheri Fink’s Pulitzer-Prize winning story on life-and-death decisions at a New Orleans hospital after Hurricane Katrina uncovers evidence of euthanasia by doctors working in unspeakably difficult circumstances—and asks useful questions about what the responsibilities of doctors should be when confronted with similar disasters. In each of these three cases, the author goes deeper than what was publicly reported, and he or she uses a particular story to illuminate broader issues of justice.

I will e-mail comments on your CD beat memos to you by tomorrow, October 13th.

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