Editorial: Why we don’t cover the crime beat

What value is there in repeating police reports day in, day out?

We made a decision early on in establishing insideWaterloo about how we would cover police-involved incidents and other stories related to crime in Waterloo Region. Namely, that we wouldn’t. There is no crime beat at insideWaterloo.

The primary reason for this decision came from our understanding of how traditional media’s relationship with policing depends on (and results in) the disenfranchisement of community voice. There’s also the complicit relationship one enters with the police power when publishing these stories. The crime beat is so ingrained in newsrooms that police narratives remain unquestioned and unchallenged.

Here’s how it works for many outlets. In the mornings, journalists will glance over their emails or social media to spot any press release put out by Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS). Oftentimes, these press releases are published verbatim with little to no editing. There is usually one or two people in the newsroom tasked with calling police divisions across the region to find out if anything major happened overnight. This person will document the information, write up the copy, add liberal use of the word “allegedly” and its set for publishing.

It’s a reciprocal, but exploitative cycle. What do you, valued readers, get out of it? For the publication, they get your clicks and likes. As Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli wrote in their argument to defund the crime beat for the Nieman Lab, “media tend to prioritize their relationships with law enforcement over their connections with communities impacted by state violence, overpolicing, and generations of trauma and governmental neglect.”

This relationship is good for the advertisers (the tired adage of “if it bleeds it leads.”). For the police service, they get free PR. They keep up the appearance of doing their job. It paints a picture of a crime-ridden city, and their thin blue line separating the “civilized” from the “brutes.” Perfect for keeping police budgets high and dry, while social services fend for themselves against a sea of cuts.

For as dangerous a job they paint it, the data doesn’t back it up. A Statistics Canada study released in 2010 found that taxi drivers were twice as likely to be murdered on the job compared to police. In 2018, a CBC report found that since 1975, a total of 284 police officers have died on the job (101 killed by homicide, 88 killed in vehicle accidents). Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail looked at Canada’s deadliest jobs, where policing didn’t make the top ten (roofers were five times more likely to die on the job than police officers)

Since 2018, CBC News has been maintaining its own database of people killed by police in Canada. Recently updated in June 2020, they were still finding that deaths due to police violence were on the rise over the past 20 years; Black and Indigenous people were disproportionately represented; and the majority of cases involved mental health and substance abuse issues. There have been 555 deaths recorded in the database. The first half of 2020 saw 30 people killed by police violence.

The crime beat rarely does much more than answer the question: what did the police say happened? “Allegedly” can do all the heavy lifting it wants, but police are too often given the benefit of the doubt in the court of law. Setting aside the issue of justice, what about dignity? The people charged in these reports are turned into objects to be judged, with no agency to defend themselves. There’s rarely an addendum after they have their day in court.

We aren’t given access to the full story, let alone the person. A person’s failure to comply can be so easily abused. Questioning why you have to leave an area can easily turn into a trespassing charge, just because someone thought you were “suspicious.”

By WRPS own data, use-of-force was more likely to happen to Black residents, but of course, it argues that it’s too early to make that call. It was only recently that WRPS began collecting that data. Meanwhile, we have decades of police reports turned into news stories, while Black voices continue to be unheard.

At insideWaterloo, we won’t be publishing any police-involved articles unless there is an opportunity to offer voice and agency to the “people who don’t wear the uniform” and the communities involved.

~The insideWaterloo Team

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