Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The building has no power and neither do we

We were without electricity for a few hours Monday night after the storm knocked out power downtown and the newspaper's generator failed to kick on.
When we finally were able to get back on our computers, we hustled to get the paper out.
Sometime after midnight we got a tip that Middle Avenue near Value City and a portion of Russia Road had been barricaded and there were many police cars in the area.
We called the Elyria Police and were told that the sheriff's department was handling it.
The only question was: Handling what?
There were no reporters left in the newsroom at that hour to dispatch so I asked one of our copy editors -- Michael Baker -- to call the sheriff's department to find out what was going on.
Well, seems the dispatcher would give him absolutely no information. Nothing.
He came into my office.
"What am I supposed to do in a situation like this?" he asked.
"She wouldn't tell me anything."
I couldn't imagine that a dispatcher would not give us a general idea of what was going on.
So, I said, "Give me that number."
I called her.
"I don't have any information," she said.
"You don't know what the call was they went out on?" I asked.
"I don't have a press release," she said.
She doesn't have a press release.
Now, come on.
"All I want to know is what was the call they went out on," I repeated.
She repeated similar stonewalling sentiments.
She would not tell me anything.
So, I pulled Michael away from his copy-editing job and sent him to the scene to check things out.
Then I left a message on Sheriff Stammitti's voicemail pleading for just a little cooperation.
When Michael got to the barricades, he was told by a law enforcement officer to wait in the Value City parking lot.
Michael asked him what was going on and he said he didn't know.
He said he didn't know.
I was beginning to wonder if anybody did know.
Michael told me that Terry Costigan of TMC News was already there.
I told him to ask Terry what was going on.
And finally, we got our information: There's a hostage situation in a house.
Thanks, Terry.
You know, that's all we wanted to know.
Is that really too much to ask?


Anonymous said...

Sounds like the sheriff's office personnel have some control issues with releasing public information.

I'm recalling the Chronicle's excellent past reporting on how the office improperly redacted information from reports and didn't release others as required.

On the flip side, I can understand an inexperienced dispatcher refusing to answer questions if they haven't been explicitly told they can do so. They don't want to lose their jobs by disclosing stuff that shouldn't be disclosed.

Sounds like the top sheriff's officers need to do some wholesale training on how to work with the media.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, the cops around here keep a tight leash on the info as well. It's all got to come from their public information officer, who often finds time to type up a press release after the story is no longer news.
We've been having to make frequent public-records requests for the initial reports, which, by our laws, are public. Now they quibble over what information is in the initial report.
Basically, cops are too afraid of losing their jobs or getting at least a good chewing out if they release something they shouldn't. So you have to keep hammering them with the public-records requests.