Reporting the “Gun Beat”: Story Behind the Story
Full video, powerpoint presentation and edited transcript; "Reporting the “Gun Beat”: Story Behind the Story"; February 11, 2017.
POWERPOINT: FRANK MAIN
Bruce Shapiro: We are shifting now from expert testimony to the part of the program where we speak as journalists to one another about how to refresh and innovate our coverage of gun violence, and how to get the public to engage in ways with an issue that everybody thinks they know. We are fortunate to kick this part of the program off to have Frank Main and Cheryl Thompson.
Frank Main has been covering crime in Chicago since 1999, so he has seen it all, reporting on everything from the evolution of street gangs to the no snitch code that keeps witnesses from cooperating with detectives. He's a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He's covered pretty much every major story in the last 20 years. In 2011, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting along with reporter Mark Konkol and photographer John Kim.
You've already met Cheryl Thompson. She's an award winning investigative journalist for the Washington Post who has written extensively about crime, corruption, and guns, including an investigation of police officers killed by guns and where those guns came from. She'll be talking about some of that work today. She was also part of the Post team that reported on fatal police shootings in the United States last year. Specifically, she examined everyone who died in 2015 after being tasered by police. She has more than 25 years of daily newspaper reporting experience.
She was part of the Pulitzer Prize winning team in 2002, a 2011 recipient of an Emmy, and has a long list of other awards including the Freedom of Information Medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors. She's associate professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, and has also taught at several other universities.
What we're going to do is have Frank and Cheryl each talk about one body of work – one way that they've approached this issue – talk through their project a bit for about 12 minutes or so each, and then we'll talk about it colleague to colleague.
Cheryl Thompson: Thank you. Good morning again. When my editor Jeff Leen, who's the investigations editor at the Post, came up with this brilliant idea – and of course you never think it's brilliant when an editor comes to you and says he wants you to do something – but it was a series on guns that he had come up with. So there were four of us who worked on the team: James Grimaldi, Sari Horwitz, David Fallis and I, and we were each tasked with doing different things. My job was to find out every police officer that was killed over a 10 year period by guns.
I kind of looked at him like, "How am I supposed to do this?" But I also had to figure out the type of gun and trace it and track it. I had to figure out were the guns stolen? Were they legal? Were they bought on the street? Were they store-purchased? So I knew it was going to be challenging because of a law that Congress passed in 2003 called the Tiahrt Amendment, which prohibits federal government from releasing trace data on firearms, so I had to figure out how to get around that. I approached the project first by determining who would keep the data on cops killed? Does anybody know who would keep this?
The FBI. So I stumbled across this FBI database because for anybody's who's been on the FBI website, it's not the most organized. There's a lot of data there, and I stumbled across this amazing database of synopses and it was every officer killed, whether he or she was stabbed or shot or run over or killed by his own weapon. The good thing was it had the type of gun, it had the police department and the date, so you could figure out. But it had no names and I needed names, so I had to figure out how would I get these names. Does anybody know how I could get the names? Go back to the police departments? Okay, and then I heard the National Police Memorial, close.
The Officer Down Memorial Page has the names, which even as a cop reporter I had never really paid much attention to that site. It was a goldmine, because what I could do and what I actually did was I took the information from the FBI website, the date, the police department, the type of gun, and then I went to the Officer Down page, typed in the date and would scroll through and figure it out. It took awhile – actually 18 months to do my part of this project from beginning to end – but that's what I did because the Officer Down Memorial Page goes back to the 1800's I think. It's like every cop killed, so then I had to figure out well, what would I do with all of this information? I would I sort it to see what I had.
At this point I realized this was a lot of information – it had become a data-driven project. I created a spreadsheet and I put it in by hand one by one, every cop killed, their age, the department, the city, the state, the type of gun used. I looked at the punishment of the people convicted of killing the cops. Did they get the death penalty? Did they get life? What happened to them? Every single detail became important because I didn't know what I was going to end up with, and you know investigative reporting I always tell my students it's like a jigsaw puzzle. It's one piece at a time, and when you're done you hope the pieces all fit together.
I also put in there the type of gun – every single detail – because ours was the first comprehensive study of how killers got their guns. Nobody in the country had ever done it before, which is why I go back to saying Jeff's idea was brilliant. I knew it was smart because he's smart, but it was absolutely brilliant, and so what I found at the end of putting all of this in there, there were 511 police officers over a 10 year period who had been killed by guns. What I found actually surprised me. What would you think was the leading source of weapons used to kill cops? Where do you think they came from? Were they legally owned, illegal?
Audience: Their own weapon?
CT: No, their own weapon was I think there were 45 cases like that.
Audience: Black market?
CT: Nope. Legally owned. Not maybe most, but legally owned there were 107 guns that were legally owned by people who used them to kill police officers. Stolen guns turned up in 77 deaths, guns illegally obtained on the streets or through sale or barter were 41 cases. More than 200 of the shooters were felons who under law are prohibited from owning guns, so that was a big piece of this because how are we getting these guns? Forty-two of the killers were 18 years or younger, the oldest shooter was 77, the youngest 15, and there were actually four 15-year-old shooters who killed cops.
At least six of the suspects were released early from prison, including a man who was freed a day before gunning down an officer. At least four of the shooters or the suspects were previously convicted of murder or manslaughter, including a Texas man who had done time for two separate killings and was on parole when he killed a 40-year-old married father of three in Texas. The deadliest situation for officers, what do you think the two deadliest situations for cops are?
Audience: Domestic violence?
Audience: Serving a warrant?
Audience: Traffic stops?
CT: Traffic stops and domestic disputes. Why? Does anybody know why?
Audience: If it's a domestic dispute, that person was already potentially…
CT: The person is already on high, right?
Audience: The volume of calls is large.
CT: Cops don't know what they're walking into when they go into domestic, and that's how they're killed because they'll knock on a door, and the woman will answer, the guy's standing behind the door and blows the cop's head off. In traffic stops, and I see this all the time and I go, "I wonder how many of these deaths could have been prevented"? Because if you notice cops will walk up to a car and they tell the person, "Let me see your license," and they allow that person to reach. Even if you keep one hand on the wheel, you still got another hand that can pull the trigger, and that's what happens to cops. I saw videos of this. We’ve got about five videos that went with this series, and they were actual shooting incidents of police officers.
There was one, it was a guy who had stolen a car and had come up from Florida. He was going through Georgia, had robbed a bank. The cop didn't know and he pulled him over because he had a bad tag, thinking it's a bad tag, and he gets out and the guy gets out of the car – police officers should never let anybody get out of the car. He got out of the car and it was at night. You can see on the video that clearly he told him he wanted to see the license. He allows the guy who's standing there in front of him to reach in the car, and he pulls out a gun and he points it and he just blew his brains out, like all in a matter of three seconds.
There was another guy, a cop in a small town in Bastrop, Louisiana. These cops had gotten a call, they were looking for somebody involved in a robbery, and they go to this motel. There were two cops, one black, one white, two detectives, and they go there looking for this guy. What they didn't know was the guy who was in the room actually got the room because his friend, the guy the cops were looking for, had registered it in his name. What the cops didn't know was the guy in that room was wanted for murder in Texas, so they go and the guy just open fires on them. One cop runs off, and the guy comes out and shoots him in the back. He's dead. The other one runs off, shoots him, he's dead.
The girlfriend, who's Tanya "Little Feather" Smith, it's an Aryan nation name, she comes out and there's a video. There's a camera, which of course they didn't know, and she yells to the guy in the motel office, "You might want to call the police," and she steps over and keeps it moving. They kill the guy, but Tanya, she went to prison for the rest of her life. But it's what happens to police officers. Those are the deadliest situations, traffic stops and domestic stops.
Handguns were used to kill 365 cops, about 72 percent of all the officers killed, which sort of surprised me. I don't know why. The trace data reports that each of you have a copy of, Ii became an integral part of my reporting because they show all kinds of things. They show the gun's serial number which really is important, the original purchaser which is down on the left side at the bottom, the purchaser information, the gun dealer and other pertinent information. So if you look over to the right midway down where it says "Recovery Information" and you'll see the recovery date and the time to crime.
The shorter the time to crime, the likelier it is that it was used in trafficking. I had some reports where there were 10,000 days, so it just made its way around states. But since I couldn't get these reports from the Feds because – they are not allowed to turn them over – who would I get them from?
Audience: Local police?
CT: Local and state police, right? Because I had covered DC police for several years, I had developed terrific sources. Cops can be really good sources. Frank will talk about that, I know he knows cops can be really good sources.
Luckily I had kept in touch with most of them and that's why it's important really to keep in touch with your sources when you don't need anything, because eventually you might. So I went to my sources and I collected nearly three-dozen trace data reports, which helped me trace these guns. I interviewed more than 350 police officials, judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and others, and combed through hundreds of pages of court transcripts to find out how the shooters obtained their weapons. Court records are valuable, because they give you details, and these details proved invaluable to me in this story.
I was able to track how the shooters got their weapons in 341 of the 511 cases. There were 29 killings in which weapons were not recovered, so it was impossible to trace in those cases. But this was a story that also needed voice: voices of the victim's families, of the gun dealers and buyers, of the officers who lost one of their own, and the voices of the killers.
CT: I chose [Darryl] Jeter because, after reviewing the transcripts from his trial, he had never told police where he got the gun. He never told anyone where he got the gun, not a judge, not a jury, not a cop, and so I wanted to talk to him because that's what I look far when I'm doing an investigation is somebody who's sort of the anomaly, somebody who can shed information, shed light on something that hasn't been reported on before, and so how did I convince him to talk to me because he's in prison, I'm in DC, he's in Indiana? I wrote him a letter, and I think it's important if you are forced to write a letter to somebody that you find a commonality. Commonality's really important in interviewing, and so my commonality was what, does anybody know?
Audience: That you're from here?
CT: That I'm from Chicago like he was. Not only Chicago, south side, because what does that tell him? Chances are I'm black like he is, and I can relate to him, and a few weeks later I got a call from the prison saying he agreed to talk to me, so I got my videographer, my photographer, we went there, got there the day the prison was on lockdown. Everybody was shackled, and he decided he wouldn't do it. He changed his mind.
I am from the south side of Chicago, you will not change your mind after I came all this way to talk to you, so I asked the warden if I could have five minutes with him. He said yes, I went back there, we exchanged a few words that he would understand, and he agreed to do the interview.
So, he came out and we did the interview. And I really actually liked this kid. There was something, in a strange way, very honest about him. There was a dead cop, there's no excusing that, but he was very raw and honest. He's in prison like he said for the rest of his natural life. He has no chance for parole – he's not going anywhere. He was young, so he's got a long time to be in prison, but this was the interview that won the Emmy so I really am very proud of this interview because he didn't have to do it. He didn't have to talk to me.
BS: Cheryl, maybe what we can do is come back to some of the other choices and stories when we have the Q&A, because I want to make sure that Frank gets his moment in.
Frank Main: I'm going to talk in very general terms. I'm not going to talk about a specific story, I'm going to tell you a bunch of stories about how I perceive this beat to be, but before I start that excellent talk [by Matthew Miller] on suicide got my attention because we took a chance at the Chicago Sun-Times last year and we did a big story on a suicide.
I live out in the West Loop of Chicago. One morning, I was out having coffee on my balcony and I saw a woman who's in the building across the way. A judge who I know called me and said, "Hey, look out your window, there's a jumper." I'm like, "Oh my God.” So my son was getting ready for work in his bedroom and I said, "Hey, there's a lady out on the ledge over here." I watched the whole thing and eventually she jumped off the ledge and died.
I wasn't going to do a story about it. I just kind of talked to my neighbors, people who lived in the building. Everybody was so traumatized by this. I talked to the police officers who I knew on the beat. Eventually, I decided to do a story from everybody's perspective about how they reacted to what this woman did so publicly, and it was a real risk for the newspaper because we thought that we might come under a lot of criticism for writing about a suicide. Everybody looked at it from their own perspective, about somebody they knew who had committed suicide, why she did it or how it impacted them, and so if you want to look at that story it's called "Life on a Ledge." It's online and it's kind of a tick-tock about this woman who had a real kind of a sine curve of a life, ups and downs, and eventually she took her own life and unfortunately I witnessed it and I kind of write it from a first person point of view.
The gun beat. I started at the Sun-Times on the crime beat in 1999, and we had these guys from Canada who came down when the Sun-Times was bought by a new company, and they were freaked out about what they saw in Chicago. These guys were from Toronto and they were like, "I cannot believe how many people kill each other in Chicago. This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen." It's like today, they were just stunned by the level of gun violence and they said, "We need you to be the gun violence reporter." I actually had a byline saying “gun violence reporter” back in 1999. It was really weird, and that beat at the time for me was essentially, if I look back on it, it's a beat about a market. It's about the gun market. Where do guns come from? Who sells them? What are the restrictions on guns? Does anybody carry out those restrictions?
When you're doing a beat like this, you want to talk to the people who are actually making policy, and guess who the number one guy making policy in 1999, 2000 was on the gun beat? It was this guy named Rod Blagojevich. You ever heard of him? Rod of course is in prison now. I look back at it very cynically. He used this issue of guns to get his name out there. Every month or so, he was coming up with a new gun regulation bill in Congress. None of these things ever went anywhere. Eventually, after two or three years, he got bored being a Congressman. He ran for governor in 2002 and we all know what happened after that.
In the end, my editors kind of took me off this specific beat and I had a more general criminal justice beat, and we decided that in Illinois anyway, there is very little meaningful gun regulation that has ever passed here because of the pushback from the NRA. Secondly, even for the laws that we do have which at one time were fairly strong nationally, there's very little enforcement of them and so I started looking at the gun beat in a different way. There are business stories involving guns and there are criminal justice stories involving guns. I'm going to go to the business stuff first: who sells the guns, what are the restrictions, types of guns, etc.
In Illinois, we have a specific card that you have to have to buy a gun. It's called a FOID card, Firearm Owners ID card. You have to get a background check before you even get this card, then once you get it you have to present it at the store to buy a gun. People with mental illness, domestic violence, convictions, felonies can't have these cards, so I'm going to kind of talk about one story that highlights how we may have this very strong and powerful law but nothing happens when you actually try to carry it out.
We did a story in 2015, and we found that in Illinois, through various reporting mechanisms, 50,000 people with mental illness were barred from having these FOID cards. Many of these people had FOID cards originally, they were found to be mentally ill later. Their healthcare providers then reported this to the state, their cards were revoked, so officially their cards are revoked. The problem is, state police who are primarily the ones that enforces these laws did almost nothing. They were not going out to people's houses, taking their physical cards, or taking any of the guns that they had bought with these FOID cards, so essentially you had potentially 50,000 people who are all armed at home and mentally ill.
What happened is the legislators said, "You know what? We can fix this problem. We're going to create a new law where local law enforcement will have to go to court, get a warrant, and then actually go to this person's house and take the guns away from them." Nothing ever happened, so I was very interested to see in the Chicago Tribune earlier this month there was a story, says "Even if FOID card revoked, guns rarely seized." It's the exact same issue a year and a half later, nothing happened. This kind of demonstrates what we do on this beat, so our job is to point out these problems in enforcement and lack of enforcement.
The frustration on my beat, and I'm sure a lot of you have it too, is you report this stuff and it is so politicized in the legislature that nothing ever actually gets done, so where do these crime guns come from? Cheryl's presentation described the Tiahrt Amendment, which essentially says that if you ask the ATF for trace information on guns they're going to say no. They're not allowed to give it to you. The second kind of story that you can do on gun markets is how do these guns go from being sold legally to sold illegally?
What we have found in the Chicago media is that the best way to tell those stories is to write about a very controversial homicide, either a child who's killed or a police officer who is killed. Why is that? Because the detectives pull out all the stops on these cases. It's a heater case, and so they do the trace. They do everything right in the case. A lot of times in murders they won't do all of this stuff. Then, all that trace information becomes public record in the court file when this thing goes to trial. As Cheryl said, cops, your local sources, aren't barred. Their hands aren't tied by this Tiahrt Amendment, so they can give you this information. You can also like I say get it through the court records.
Major media covering Chicago have done these stories, and essentially what we've found is that there are a variety of ways that these guns go from being legal to illegal. In the Chicago area, very curiously I guess, they're not coming from other states as much as they're coming from our suburbs. Chuck's Guns sells so many guns to straw purchasers who then sell them to people on the street, so these are legal people who can buy the guns and they sell them to people illegally. We've also found that Indiana, Mississippi and Kentucky are major sources of these illegal guns. Here's a New York Times story that said more than a quarter of the firearms seized on the streets here by the Chicago Police Department over the past five years were bought just outside city limits in Cook County suburbs according to an analysis by the University of Chicago crime lab. Others came from stores around Illinois and from other states like Indiana. Chuck's Guns is the one that they focused on.
Like I said, one way to focus the public's attention on how these guns wind up in the black market is to focus on these highly controversial stories and trace the story from beginning to end. Here's one that I did with Annie Sweeney, who's now at the Chicago Tribune, great reporter. We looked at this one case, one very controversial case where a little girl was killed, three-year-old Angel Thomas. We found that this gun was actually sold by a cop down south in Mississippi, then it goes into the legal gun store and then a guy comes down from Illinois, because there are very few restrictions on buying guns in Mississippi. He buys this gun and then brings it back to Chicago, and then it's used where these gang bangers are shooting at a house, and this little girl winds up dead.
What was very interesting about this particular story is not only did we get information through the homicide investigation, but Smith & Wesson itself went through their records, and we gave them the serial number and they told us the history of this gun going all the way back to 1945. I think it was a war gun at one point, so we had the serial number and it was a war gun. For whatever reason at the time, Smith & Wesson decided it wanted to cooperate with news media, and so we were the beneficiary of that end of the story. Ask the question, sometimes these manufacturers won't help you out, sometimes they will. That's one type of story.
Another type of story is of course the criminal justice system. What we've done a lot recently at the Sun-Times is looked at whether our laws are actually being enforced and carried out, so these are data-driven stories that you can do by looking at how judges are ruling on gun possession cases, as well as looking at the federal government. There's a lot of talk by the Feds when they say, "We're helping out in Chicago, we're very interesting in cracking down on gun violence," and then you actually look at the numbers and you're like, "They're doing almost nothing here", so I'll get to that.
The third way to do it is of course anecdotally, like you did. Talk to somebody on the street and ask them, "How did you get the gun?" We talked to this guy Chris as part of a large piece on where guns come from, and what was interesting about him – every time you talk to somebody on the street you're going to get a very interesting take on how this stuff happens. This particular kid was stealing guns from grandma and grandpa in the neighborhood. Somebody said, "Oh yeah, my grandpa has a gun" and they'd say, "Okay, when are they going to church?" Then they'd sneak into the house, steal the gun, and then it became the gang gun. Then when they shot somebody with it, they would get rid of the gun. You'd think that everything comes from straw purchasing and from the legal black market or going to Indiana, no. They're also stealing guns off trains, big time.
So I talked about evaluating judges and prosecutors. Here's one that we did involving the Feds. Essentially, we say that Feds are promising that they're going to help fight gun violence. We go to a system called TRAC, which is a great resource for you, T-R-A-C. It's produced by Syracuse University, and what happens is that they aggregate all sorts of federal prosecution data and put out reports, and they do everything from gun prosecutions to immigration stuff. Very valuable resource, and you can for a low cost custom make your own reports through TRAC. What we found is we'd go to the Feds of course, we'd go to the U.S. Attorney's office and say, "What are your stats on prosecuting gun crimes?" They're like, "We can't tell you," but they actually suggested that we go to this other site.
Judges – look at these guys. See what the ranges are for various gun penalties and where the judges land on them. What we found with Cook County judges is that they kind of view possessionary gun crimes as non-violent crimes. They're like, "You didn't shoot anybody with the gun, it's not really a violent crime. We're going to sentence you toward the bottom of the range." I think some of this is changing philosophically in our court system in the past year as we keep hammering the judiciary here on the lenience of gun sentencing. As you know, there were almost 800 murders and 4,300 shootings in Chicago last year. People are trying to figure out how we can make the punishment for gun crimes more immediate and how we can get criminals to actually pay attention and worry about the penalties. These guys, for the most part, will do six months in Cook County jail, and then they'll be released on good time.
Finally, explaining guns. What I've found over the years is a lot of people covering crime beat don't like guns, don't want to know about guns, don't want to know details about what kind of guns are what. They talk about military-style assault rifles. What is that? They talk about different types of calibers, I'll tell you that the University of Chicago just did a study and it found that 40 caliber handguns are like the thing on the street here in Chicago now, so what does that mean? It's a lot more firepower than a smaller caliber weapon like a nine, so you need to know the physical properties of these guns and what they do, so I'll give you a little test.
What kind of guns use 223 caliber bullets? What's the difference between a 380 and a 38 caliber? What's a receiver on a rifle? When you have revolvers and semiautomatics do they both eject shell casings? Does everybody here know all that? Raise your hand, yes? For those of you who don't, you should know this stuff. One way to learn about this is to get Jane's Gun Guide, and it'll give you every single type of gun that's available and explain what it does. Obviously, the Internet is also a good tool. Believe it or not, the NRA, they love guns and so they will actually explain to you the differences between guns and that kind of thing.
An AR-15 rifle, which you've seen a lot of in the mass shootings recently, it's a style of a rifle. It's an armor light rifle. They use these particular cartridges in their guns, they spin, and they cause a lot of damage. 38 versus 380, 38 is a longer cartridge. What does that mean? It means it has more powder in it – it means it's more powerful. Why do people like these guns? Because they can fit into a much smaller frame, so you can have a gun that's easily concealed in your waistband or whatever as opposed to a big 38 special, which is what these guys get into.
What's a receiver? It's a big thing if you're covering military style assault weapons, if you're covering the type of weapons that we often see in mass shootings. This thing here is the actual gun, according to federal law. There's a serial number on this thing, on this receiver, which is what is actually regulated by the government, and then you screw in the barrel into the end of this thing, so that's a receiver. They're sold as components to larger guns. A lot of folks will traffic and steal and sell receivers, because they're super valuable.
Finally, of course almost everybody knows, this thing is a semi-automatic pistol. It will eject shell casings, this won't. Why are shell casings important? Going back to the ATF and the Tiahrt Amendment and tracing guns, the casings or projectiles are entered into something called NIBIN, which is a ballistic match system, and you can take bullets from different crime scenes, match them together with spent casings and connect crimes together. It's much harder to do with a revolver. That's a nutshell of the gun beat. Ask questions.
Audience: Do you know how frequently NIBIN is used?
FM: NIBIN, so what happened about three or four years ago is that the Chicago Police Department realized that it was really missing the boat on NIBIN, meaning they recover 8,000 plus guns a year in Chicago and they recover a lot more ballistic evidence than that. They weren't loading all that stuff up into this system, and so to answer your question, about three years ago in Homan Square, which is the black site that you read about in the Guardian, it's an intelligence center in the Chicago Police Department. They put in their own ballistics-tracing center using ATF equipment, and so now they are loading every piece of ballistics evidence into this system and it goes to ATF and they trace it. In Chicago, it's done regularly. It's part of their policy.
Other places, not so much. I was just in South Bend the other day, and I was talking to them about something called Shot Spotter. It's a ballistics sensor – it detects shots – and every time they go to a scene where there's a Shot Spotter sensor they look for the brass on the ground, collect it, and their own cops are able then to load the stuff into the NIBIN system themselves. They've all been trained, so they don't have to wait for a tech to do it. Bottom line, to answer your question is that police departments around the country are realizing that this is a really important tool. They're using it more and more.
BS: One local story might be to find out if local or state police departments in particular locations are using NIBIN to the maximum?
FM: If you're trying to localize a story on this, is your local police department, are they farming everything out to ATF or are they doing it themselves? How often do they do this? What kind of patterns have they detected? Have they ever made any kind of criminal cases based on NIBIN?
BS: That might intersect also with unsolved homicides and stuff like that, too.
Audience: For those of us who may not be cops reporters in the traditional sense, like not going out, following scanners, is there any advice you guys have for trying to create relationships when you're not on scene all of the time?
CT: I've never listened to a scanner in all of my years in journalism. I was a police reporter, but my job was to cover the policy of the police department as opposed to crimes. I just sort of got interested in that because DC, like Chicago, had its issues with rising homicides, and because I covered the policy and my job was actually to cover captains and above, we call them the white shirts, so they were really good in terms of developing sources because they knew everything that was going on in the department. You might want to, even though you don't cover it daily, just get to know some detectives. Homicide detectives are like gossips. They love to talk. It's amazing. Cops like to talk, but particularly those who are really in the know.
There was a time when I had developed some really good sources, like commanders and assistant chiefs and I knew police headquarters well. I knew where the back doors to their offices were, and I remember once I went through a back door and the guy was sitting at his desk and he turned around. He's like, "What the hell are you doing here?" I was like, "You should have locked your door." That's why I would suggest just calling them up, maybe meeting them for coffee when you have time, when they have time, and just see what they know because they really are a wealth of information.
FM: My path was a little bit different. I used to go to police headquarters every day. I'd get my reporter bucket, go to 11th and State, rat-infested building on the South side, I could walk into the superintendent's office, "What's going on?" "Oh, I've got this homicide, and we did this, this, this." so I would go talk to the chief of detectives. 9/11, everything changed, no access to the building, gotta develop different sources different ways. Peter Nickeas in the back is going to talk to you guys – he's like the best in town in terms of being on the street, meeting people that way. Not everybody can do that.
That is obviously the best way to do it because then people respect your expertise in what they do. But if you don't have a chance to do it everyday and you want to do a story, do some research before you make your first call to that person in the police department. Make sure they know that you're interested in what they're doing. I think that's the biggest thing. Don't just come off like a total noob that doesn't know anything about the subject. Spend a day researching before you make that call.
BS: I'd also add that just because you're not a cops reporter doesn't mean you can't call up and say, "I'd like to do a ride-along and I want to spend some time with you guys learning what you do." You can make those gestures and build those relationships even if or even especially if you're not on the beat. It's kind of like learning the parts of a gun. It's part of the language that may help you do your job.
Audience: I don't know if every town has this, but sometimes they have like a Citizens' Police Academy. When I was a police reporter, it was one of the things that I did and I actually met a lot of people that way.
FM: Citizens' Police Academy, good thing. You get to see the way everything works. They do that in Chicago, they do it in other big cities. I would definitely take advantage of that if that's kind of a topic that you want to learn about.
CT: Can I say one more thing to her question too, is cops are not trusting people by nature, which is you understand why because when you trust sometimes you walk up to a car and get your head blown off. But I think research is the key and just calling them up, and it may take time. They're not going to immediately pour their hearts out to you, but I think you don't have to be a police reporter. They don't care whether you're a police reporter or not, as long as you're a good reporter, they'll talk to you.
FM: I have another suggestion. Meet the gang members. Meet the criminals. Have them in your Rolodex. Call them when something's happening and get some advice about what's going on in Englewood or the West side. Don't be afraid to talk to these guys. That's how you really inform yourself to make sure you're not getting BS by the police about something that's going on in a neighborhood. Maybe these guys are lying to you, maybe they're not. The more sources you can develop outside of the official law enforcement spiel, the better.
BS: Do you want to talk a little bit, either one of you actually, about how you do that, how you go about building a trusting relationship with sources who A) are on the wrong side of the law, and B) are not usually your regular news consumers?
CT: Well, there was a reporter at the Post, Marcia Slacum Greene. She developed this amazing relationship with the crews – they're called crews in DC – and I remember she was out once and I had to go and cover something at the courthouse, and these guys were her sources and they would not give me the time of day. They were like, "We want Marcia,” and if you saw her you would not think she would be the type to develop a relationship with a gang, but she had this amazing relationship with these crew members. I really can't offer advice on that because they didn't talk to me!
I did have one guy who I wrote about, and I guess maybe he could be considered –well he killed somebody so I guess would that be a gang member or just a thug? – I'm not sure. But he didn't know me and I called him up. I needed to know if he was the guy, if I had the right guy, and I called him up and I said, "I'm calling about Sean Dixon." Immediately, he said, "Oh yeah, August 17th, 19-" and I was like, "Whoa, this is the guy,” and so we talked and I said, "Well look, can I come and talk to you?" He said, "Yes, I'll be there tomorrow," because whenever somebody says you can come and talk to them you go, because they'll change their mind.
I got my photographer and we went the next day. I knew this guy was a killer and I knew he had a lot of trouble with guns and he had guns in the trunk so I knew what I was walking into. Even though I am from the South side, I was a little apprehensive about it because one of my cop sources said, "I don't mean to frighten you, but never trust a killer." Okay great, so that made me feel much more secure going to this guy's house. We got there, he told me what I wanted to know, he let us take pictures of him and his kid, and his mom was none too happy because he had never been investigated for this homicide. Cops had never talked to him, which was why he became part of the story and he even said, "I've gotten stopped by police, they've never asked me about this crime, nobody's ever approached me about it."
He then gets this call. He's on the phone, off and on, and finally he hands the phone to me. I'm like, "I don't know anybody you know," and it was his aunt. She basically told me and was very blunt about it, "Get out." Not a problem, so he said to me, "I think you should leave," and I said to him, "Not a problem." When I turn around, my big Italian tattooed photographer was gone, out the door, left me. Ricky Carioti, I love him dearly, left me. I went out but I didn't turn my back on him. I backed out the door and I said, "Come walk outside with me," so it ended up he was on the front page, picture, he was the lead of the story.
It was on homicides in DC where nobody went to prison, and to this day he's still out there. They tried to get him, but a good lawyer got him off. The police blew the case, so he was sort of like the one close to a gang guy as I could get.
FM: I can give you an example why you want to know and talk to these folks. 2010, Garry McCarthy was a police superintendent. He was following what had previously been done, which was called gang call-ins, so what they would do is they'd get gang members, put them together, feds would come, states attorneys would come, police would come, they talked to them and said, "Look, we know what you guys are doing. If you continue to commit violence, we're going to really go after you. Here's some social services as well, here's a lady from the community whose son was killed. She's going to talk to you about it." Then the police would say, "These guys committed a murder and we're going to actually destroy this gang now," so you want to talk to the guys in the gang to find out what they're feeling from their side. Is the police strategy doing anything? Do they really care about this? Do they think it's a bunch of BS?
Pastors in the neighborhoods, community leaders, and everybody from Chicago knows this guy Gator Bradley. He used to be associated with Larry Hoover who was a big gang member in Chicago. Gator knows everybody, "Hey Gator man, do you know anybody of the four corner hustlers who I can talk to?" "Oh yeah man," puts you on the phone, you go over there and talk to them, so you have an introduction. Yeah, so you have a broker and you tell them, "Look, I know you don't normally talk to the media about what the cops are doing, but I'm interested. I want to hear it." Sometimes, not always, we're able to do that.
BS: Have either of you, I'm curious, ever used those kinds of sources to get views on the gun issue in particular?
FM: Yes, so the Maniac Latin Disciples, some idiots and their gang were firing at some rivals and they hit two girls in a park, and this police superintendent went nuts and said, "We are going to do away with the Maniac Latin Disciples."
CT: Was that a few summers ago?
CT: I knew that girl, one of those girls. It was in the park in the evening.
FM: Really? Yes, in the park, so I went to jail and I talked to the leader of the MLD's and said, "Hey, what do you think about this?" He goes, "I've ordered all my guys to stop carrying guns, because they are killing us right now. They are doing exactly what they said." It was a really interesting story from their perspective.
Audience: I was in New York, I went to a prison, they give me a bulletproof vest, but it was very old. We drove to Brooklyn and then to Harlem and then the police told me, "We’re getting out. You have to stay in the car." In terms of those places, when you go and you are not aware of what’ss going to happen. Do you need your own protective vest?
BS: Maybe think about safety in general when doing these stories.
FM: Yes, I will say that I never put myself out as being anything that I'm not. I always have my press pass. I'm not trying to look like some-
FM: Cop, or guy from the neighborhood. I'm geeky Frank Main who's a police reporter for the Sun-Times, and you will know. You go to these neighborhoods in Chicago anyway, guess what? They've seen reporters a million times, so first of all don't put yourself off as something you're not. Secondly, she's exactly right, I've had guys say, "Hey man, I would talk to you but my guys over there are ignorant. You best go." And I'm gone. I respect what they tell me and I realize and I trust that they will do what they say they're going to do. I think we all in Chicago anyway have this irrational halo that we think we have over our head, that because we're reporters nothing's ever going to happen to us.
One of our reporters named Kim Janssen who's now at the Chicago Tribune went back to cover a murder the next day. There was a retaliation that happened right in front of them, guy pointed a gun at him, he sees the guy writhing around on the ground, shot. We get close to a lot of this stuff.
I was on the South side 2004. I was with a community leader named Hal Baskin and he and I were standing there at 63rd and Halsted in Chicago. Guy comes running across the street that's firing at the other guy, and then afterwards we're like, "What the hell did we do? Why didn't we hit the deck?" He was like, "Man, this is getting too normal." I was like, "I know, it's weird." The guy didn't shoot the other guy, but later on he came back and finished the job.
The answer to your question is we probably don't do enough to be safe out there, but that's the trade-off to get the story. I will finally say that I'm not the guy that's out there all the time anymore. You'll hear from the guy in an hour. He's there all the time. He could tell you war stories that I haven't seen in four, five years.
CT: I could tell you too, excuse me, that if I have to wear a bulletproof vest, I don't want to go.
BS: It strikes me that the two of you between you have been covering now reporting gun issues and gun related issues for a lifetime. I wonder what the two of you think, as you think about it from your own experience, the part of the gun story that still needs some fresh muscle and fresh journalistic thinking A), and B) thinking regionally about this part of the country, are there cross-regional or cross-state stories that strike you as where some cooperation, collaboration might benefit as a sort of subset of that?
FM: I still can't get my mind around how easy it is to access a gun for a kid or young man in some of the neighborhoods in Chicago. It's absolute insanity, and it seems like the world's on fire and nobody cares. It is a very frustrating beat to kind of report on this stuff everyday and nothing happens, and nobody seems to care because they're not living in the neighborhoods where this is going on. The challenge everyday is to get up and care about the people who are getting shot in those neighborhoods, as I'm in a nice neighborhood on the near West side and I'm thinking about what happened last night, what happened in these neighborhoods where that's going on. It's confounding and almost unexplainable to me. Worse than a war zone, really.
CT: Maybe that's one of the stories is you spend time with some of these young guys who have these guns, who get these guns, just really spend time with them and see what their lives are like, because we don't know what their lives are like. We don't know what's beneath the surface with these guys. I mean, clearly somebody's not caring about something somewhere. Like with Darryl Jeter, the guy in the video. His parents weren't around, he was raised by his grandmother who had her own issues, and she basically left him to raise himself. And I really think after spending time with this guy he might have turned into a different person had somebody cared. Now, that's no excuse because he clearly has a lot of common sense.
BS: The kids is one kind of story.
FM: I can go back on that too. I'm just going to throw a weird, random number out. I would say 80 person of the folks who are carrying guns in these neighborhoods, if you talked to them one on one they're not scary people. They're not like monsters, and then 20 percent are monsters and they need to be locked up. I will point you to a story that I thought was excellent, and I went halfway with it and the New York Times finished it. I did a story called "O Block.” I went to a neighborhood on the South side. Parkway Gardens is the name of the public housing complex. Actually, Michelle Obama lived in there very briefly when she was a little kid. The reason I looked at it is that the most shootings in Chicago had happened on that block in that year.
The biggest challenge I had is talking to these young guys who just did not want to talk to me and they told me to get lost, and I did. A New York Times reporter spent months and got introduced to these guys and did a story about them, and I would definitely read that story if I were you, if you want to know what the life of a person of a gang member who carries guns in Chicago is like.
What was interesting and great about the story is that these are the guys that are working at the shoe store downtown during the day, part-time job. They go back, they're slinging dope on the corner, they got a gun to protect themselves. When you buy shoes from this guy, there's no way you know this guy is a gang member bad guy, but he's gang member bad guy down there because that's the way you’ve got to be. Great story.
CT: But the cops, where are the cops in this city where all these shootings are going on? Where are they? I mean, y'all have a lot of cops in this town.
FM: They're in their cars.
CT: Okay well, maybe that's a story. Where are they? Where are they in terms of shifts? They know most of the shootings happen at night. Is that like where they put the fewest number of cops? I don't know, but I think it's worth looking at, because I just wonder this stuff goes on and it's what, 762 or 732 murders?
FM: Ferguson's created a huge paradigm shift in a lot of big cities including Chicago where you talk to tactical officers who used to be really – I respected them. They work in Englewood, other places, they get out of their cars, they help people who are being bullied by other folks. They don't do it anymore, they don't get out of their cars. They're worried they're going to get videotaped, they're worried they're going to get in trouble by the Feds, they don't do anything, and that's one of the reasons that Chicago blew up last year that cops aren't doing their job.
BS: These are all really, really rich thoughts and what I can see in this room is that everybody's thinking about how to localize all of that, so I think what I'd like to do now is leave it there and let's take a 10 minute break. Thank you guys.