It's been nearly two weeks since the NYPD issued an edict banning police precincts from sharing crime reports with reporters. Despite the abrupt change in policy just weeks before a new administration takes office, the NYPD's communications division insists that nothing has changed, and that any and all public information has always been disseminated through its office.
This assertion might be true on paper, but in practice, it's blatantly false. For decades, reporters across the city have traveled to precinct houses each week to collect the crime reports, which are essentially long, jargon-filled print-outs of raw data. These reports—which are then translated into police blotters—describe cell phone snatchings, bathroom-window break-ins, felony assaults, and other incidents that may not merit citywide coverage but are of deep importance to neighborhood residents.
"They're an important part of the lifeblood of community journalism," said Jere Hester, Director of the NYCity News Service, during an interview last week. "I would argue that it's in the police's interest to have this information out there. Not only in terms of fostering closer community-police relations, but in terms of crime prevention. If you talk to any cop they'll tell you that one of the best crime fighting tools is people who are aware of their surroundings."
Reporters we spoke with can only speculate as to why the NYPD decided to cut off the flow of information. One prominent editor for a community paper told us last week that denying outlets their crime reports may be one final “fuck you” from outgoing Commissioner Ray Kelly, who has always had a healthy disdain for the media. Another hypothesis is that the crackdown was designed to cover up an unknown incident that the department didn't want to go public.
Another community newspaper editor offered an even juicier explanation: Local news website DNAinfo has recently been outpacing the dailies in breaking news by employing a journalistic one-two punch, sending greener local reporters to cover the precincts while their tabloid veterans like Murray Weiss keep an ear inside 1 Police Plaza.
The dailies, unsettled by this sudden competition, began to complain, and rather than tussle, the NYPD decided to pull the information altogether. “Sometimes if there's a problem, the simpler solution is to shut everything down,” the executive editor said.
DNAinfo's managing editor Mike Ventura declined to comment.
Local publications have attempted to make sense of the blackout—the Brooklyn Paper has an ongoing series on the issue, the most recent of which was published today. The Nabe, a CUNY-run publication covering Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, announced triumphantly last week that access to crime sheets was restored after Graduate School of Journalism Dean Stephen B. Shepard penned a letter to the NYPD protesting the change. Two days later, however, the Nabe reported that despite following the procedure recommended by Deputy Commissioner of Public Information John McCarthy to the letter, they were unable to procure the reports.
DCPI spokesperson Sergeant Brendan Ryan repeatedly told us that this isn't new—crime reports contain confidential, personal information like names, addresses and phone numbers that can’t be made public, he said, hence the policy that information must be strictly disseminated through DCPI, or gathered by attending monthly community precinct meetings. Sergeant Ryan added that it’s incumbent on reporters to form relationships with commanding officers in order to access information. “On local crimes, [reporters] have every right to set up a relationship with commanding officers,” he said.
Contrary to dispatches from community journalists, "information is flowing," he said, adding that "many that spoke to me are very happy with the situation now." Which outlets are those? "Many," he said. "I don’t have a list.”
Suffice to say that even if he did, the Brooklyn Paper would not be on it. The publication has a long history of gathering crime sheets from the precincts it covers, and presumably a healthy working relationship with the commanding officers of those precincts. For the past two weeks, all but three of the 13 precincts the paper covers refused to release the sheets that for more than 30 years have been distributed regularly.
“I have to follow the orders of DCPI,” Captain James Ryan of Greenpoint’s 94th Precinct told the paper. “That’s not our problem,” said Detective Juan Roman, of the Community Affairs department of Williamsburg’s 90th Precinct.
Sources expressed optimism that the blackout will disappear or at least fade when incoming Police Commissioner Bill Bratton begins his tenure in two weeks. "We haven't gone crazy," said one editor, adding that the relative calm would end if the information blockage continues in a de Blasio administration.