Working with police as a journalist

In the past 10 years as a journalist, I’ve dealt with various police departments. Some are unfailingly polite. Some are even more difficult to contact than the President of the United States. Some require you to pay for police reports while some won’t even let you look at those reports without a Freedom of Information Act request.

A friend who has retired from the journalism business tells me it’s very difficult to build a successful working relationship with the police and very easy, with even one bad article, to tear down a relationship that took years to build.

Twice in my life (I won’t say exactly when), I’ve written stories about sensitive matters and have been asked by my police source to keep a few items off the record. I complied, but another newspaper did not. When a newspaper publishes sensitive information that can compromise a police case, it can be devastating for the police and can result in them never wanting to work with you again.

More recently, I had a disagreement with an officer about his procedures for dealing with the media. However, since then I’ve worked with this officer on one case. He told me there was no update on the case, and when I guessed why there was no update, he told me I was probably correct but asked that I not publish that. I complied.

You know you’re making progress on the police beat when your source tells you, when you’re talking to him or her in private, to call them by their first name.

Richard Zowie tries to stay busy in his writing life and believes it’s far better to be busy than unemployed. Post comments here or e-mail him at