When Cops Are Killed

For the Dart Center staff, the murder of four Lakewood, Washington police officers last month, and the subsequent death of the suspected killer, brought back memories. One recalled her own experience covering an officer's death as a police reporter in Los Angeles and feeling unprepared to deal with the grief of the people she was working with in the police press room — not to mention her own reactions.

To get a handle on the special issues facing journalists when a public safety officer is killed, we reached out to a few different journalists. Today, we publish the responses of 2003 Dart Center Ochberg Fellow Scott North, who has edited stories involving an incident at the Herald in Everett, Washington.  If you have your own thoughts — on the handling of this story or on reporting on police more generally — please email us or leave a comment.

How might close working relationships between police and police beat reporters affect the reporting and coverage of such a story?

It depends. What gets reported in any story has a lot to do with access. In some police killings, knowing people well has landed me interviews others didn't get. As a reporter and editor, I've also found myself at times having to explain to others why people in a public agency with a long history of answering questions instead have simply shut down. The police often talk about being part of a law enforcement family, and many process the reporting in these sorts of cases in that fashion. In other words, it is personal. Ignore that at your peril.

As a young reporter I approached an officer from a department other than the one that had just suffered a loss in a police shooting. I asked him for help on a bunch of "What do cops know?" siders I'd been assigned. The editors wanted to probe how officers are trained to survive encounters with armed suspects. They also were hoping I'd get some stories about close calls for other officers. The guy's response was unprintable and also dead on target. There was a time for that sort of story and it wasn't when people were preparing for a funeral. He helped me on that day by being blunt, and later, when it made more sense, on preparing the story I'd outlined. He was a source who knew how to help me become a better journalist.

Covering the crime beat in ways that maintain appropriate separation from sources, including the cops, is a subject of great complexity.

Does covering murders of public safety personnel affect journalists or newsrooms differently than covering other homicides?

Every homicide is different. However, when police are killed, readers and others in the community have an expectation that the newsroom will play a part in the grieving. It may not be said that directly, but it is there. Feeling that pain often isn't much of a leap.

We often are more connected to a cop who is killed in the line of duty than others in our community who are murdered. If our reporters don't personally know the fallen officers, they likely know somebody who does, who has worked along side them and experienced those things that bind cops. Stories about the investigations into the officers' killings and the lost lives offer familiar terrain, but the grieving is more public and the journalism in some ways becomes part of the civic ritual.

Seasoned newsroom leaders and reporters know this. They also know that our first duty always is to the truth. Balancing the need to grieve and the need to know requires a lot of honest discussion.