The Problem With Using Cops as Sources

In the wake of widespread police violence against Black Lives Matter and police abolition protestors, local reporters are reexamining their reliance on cops as primary sources.

If you’re going to print something that an alleged criminal allegedly did, every local news veteran knows that you have to throw in the word “allegedly” — it’s a qualifier and a disclaimer, passing off whatever accusation you’re publishing onto someone else. It’s both routine legalese and a way of covering your ass. But in my early days of local news reporting, an editor once told me that “the magic word is not ‘allegedly’; the magic words are ‘police said.’” In other words, if you are to report on a crime, attributing details to police is the better shield against accusations of misinformation and libel. Right or wrong, “police said” makes an allegation land like a fact. If someone takes issue with it, you have a defense: you’re simply repeating what the police told you.

What police say might be a lie, but it is publishable according to mainstream industry standards. Every local news reporter, past and present, knows that true according to the cops is true enough. Entire New York City crime stories are written based solely on police reports or on information from DCPI, the NYPD’s office of public information. Though I’m sure most newsrooms would be loath to admit it, the press and the police have something of a symbiotic relationship — publications with content quotas and limited hours rely on cops to provide them with official information that can quickly be turned into copy, and cops rely on publications to sell the public on the idea that cops are beneficial to the community.

The pitfalls of this approach to reporting were already apparent. Cops have an obvious agenda, and journalists risk furthering that agenda when they quote them uncritically. In the wake of a prolonged spate of police violence against protesters and journalists alike in the wake of the police murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville — violence accompanied by lies and propaganda from police departments — local reporters who deal with cops as sources are rethinking these relationships. I talked to a few local news reporters based in New York City and was unsurprised to find that reporters generally distrust cops. However, they described a status quo so entrenched that it was difficult to reimagine certain aspects of crime reporting without relying on police information.

One recently laid-off journalist, whose purview for nearly a decade included crime, put it succinctly: “Journalism 101: You’re not supposed to put one source in your story.” There are exceptions to this fundamental rule, and one is that a story can feature just one source if that source is the police — but should that be the case? The journalist I spoke to felt it shouldn’t. “Especially with everything going on now, the NYPD just seems to be an extremely unreliable source.”

A local reporter who has reported in-person from crime scenes said they try to avoid using the cops as their only source. “My main strategy is usually, if at all possible, try to get a source who isn’t a cop, like a witness of a crime,” they said. “The reality is I get there and…there’s a bunch of [cops] standing around and there’s not always regular people standing around. In those circumstances, I make sure everything is attributed to [the police].”

“I don’t trust them and I think as a rule they’re not reliable sources,” the reporter continued. “They’re not any more reliable than someone on the street…and in some circumstances they’re more likely to mislead and lie.”

Another reporter described their frustration dealing with changing, sometimes contradictory police accounts. When the police amend their report, publications provide updates, but the initial story has already been widely consumed. “[Police accounts are] supposedly official, but then you do this for a few years and you find out again and again that the narrative changes,” the reporter told me. “Sometimes you want to give [the police] the benefit of the doubt, because the narrative probably does change quickly in the first 24 hours. But time and time again, it seems the narrative changes from cops saying stuff they don’t have the evidence to say to evidence showing [otherwise].”

When the NYPD reported $2.4 million of merchandise was stolen from a Rolex store, for example, the New York Post reported it as fact in its original headline (attributed to cops in the body, of course). It turned out to be completely untrue. Last week the NYPD put out an alert warning officers that containers of concrete disguised as ice cream had been found near the site of a protest. A photo attached to the alert shows that those containers were, quite obviously, concrete samples from a construction site. Nevertheless, the New York Post published the leaked memo, only noting several paragraphs down that the containers resembled concrete samples.

In some cases, the cops may be lying outright to journalists to create a narrative that, in the case of last week’s stories, frame police as victims or justify brutal arrests of peaceful protesters. Misinformation can also result from a communication breakdown between police on the ground and the public information officers journalists get on the phone. The third journalist I spoke to recounted an experience I’ve had many times: an officer at DCPI reading off a sheet robotically, unable to answer further questions, emphasizing its preliminary nature and admitting it’s all they have.

Although all three journalists agreed that cops are often unreliable sources, carrying out local crime journalism without relying on the police for information requires a reimagining of the medium and the purpose of the work altogether. It requires publishing fewer, more thoroughly reported stories and foregoing the quick and easy police report write-up.

That seems to be the direction in which local media is headed, to a degree. Jere Hester’s non-profit venture The City, for example, has no crime section on its website; its coverage of cops and courts can be found under Justice and Public Safety. In these stories, police sources are quoted alongside community members and advocates, but they are not handed the mic.

The reporters I spoke to couldn’t imagine a feasible alternative to relying on the cops if conventional crime reporting continues unchanged. “You find ways to be skeptical and push in the ways you can, but it’s just not enough,” said the third reporter I spoke to. I can’t think of an alternative, either, which is why I’m inclined to believe we should throw out conventional crime reporting altogether. If crime reporting requires the magic words “police said” and much of what police say is bullshit, refusing to publish crime write-ups seems to be the only option if we as journalists want to avoid being cops by proxy.

“I think for people who aren’t journalists or activists, it’s extremely unsettling to conceptualize that people who are officials, who are supposed to keep order and maintain the social contract, would lie,” said the third reporter. “Because if it’s true that officials are lying — and it is true — then where do you go from there? How does the structure that we have as a society just continue?”