Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Hiding the crime facts from public a dumb idea

VICTORIA - The Mounties are likely right. People are way more concerned about crime than they should be.
But their idea that the best solution could be to keep crimes secret is bizarre.
B.C. RCMP discussed reducing the flow of information as a way to “improve” the public’s attitude about crime. People were more scared than they should be, according to an internal RCMP report obtained by the Vancouver Sun. It suggested media relations officers provide less information, in hopes that would mean less media coverage and a happier public.
The real problem isn’t too much information, it’s too little. Any journalist who has tried to pry information from the RCMP - or most police forces - can attest to the difficulty in getting more than the barest basics.
There are exceptions, notably when police call a press conference and lay out seized guns or drugs as a photo op. (And who is creating fear about crime then?)
But generally, secrecy rules. Crime stories may make the headlines, but not because of chatty RCMP officers.
The Mounties’ internal report included an analysis of unidentified B.C. newspapers over a four-week period that found 67 per cent of front-page stories were about crime. (The Sun reported 26 per cent of its front-page stories in the previous month dealt with crime.) And it cites a poll done for the RCMP that found 68 per cent of B.C. residents said they were concerned that their families may be a victim of crime.
Our fear of crime is overblown. Most Canadians think crime is on the increase; in reality the rates for most crimes have been declining fairly steadily for 20 years, falling by five per cent last year. Despite the drug-driven problems of car break-ins and theft, we’re safer today than we were in 1990.
And media coverage may fuel fear. My first reporting job included showing up at the Red Deer RCMP detachment every morning and getting a briefing on what had happened in the last 24 hours from the staff sergeant, which I then compiled into the Police Log for that day’s paper. It wasn’t complete - the sergeant didn’t even try to dissemble when he read what was obviously an interesting entry to himself, shook his head and then just turned the page. But the paper’s reports gave a fair picture of what police really did, hauling in drunks, breaking up arguments and checking out garage thefts.
Terrible things still happened. But anyone who read the paper knew they were rare. Most days, not much bad occurred at all (especially if you stayed away from the Windsor Hotel bar).
That kind of reporting is still the norm in many smaller communities, with much depending on the co-operation of the local RCMP detachment. And interestingly, the RCMP the survey found 53 per cent of Greater Vancouver residents think police are doing a good job. In the rest of province, police got good marks from 65 per cent in the rest of the province. More information may mean higher approval for police.
Crime is a public issue. The police are paid by - and accountable to - citizens. They don’t have any right to withhold information because they think it might give people the wrong idea or make them look bad.
But the media should take a look at its role. Major crimes demand major coverage. But our job should be to help people understand the world they live in, and it may be that our crime reporting leaves people uninformed about the daily grind for police and in the courts. Maybe every paper should have a Police Log.
Ignorance isn’t really bliss; keeping information from the public as a strategy is both wrong and futile.
This is a very safe place to live. Yet people are troubled by crime. The answer lies in more information, understanding and informed debate about the best public policies - not more secrecy.
Footnote: I covered courts and cops briefly. And as a naive young reporter, the most surprising thing to me was how well the system worked. Police functioned as social workers with guns, except when the really bad people came around. The courts did an effective job in locking up the dangerous, giving a reasonable chance to the potentially redeemable and acquitting the innocent. The system - terribly flawed - mostly worked, given the limitations government set.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is interesting to compare the amount of ink spilt and all the self-rightous indignation shown by the press on this RCMP story versus the absolute zero coverage of the Victoria Times-Colonist's Vivian Smith being fired (and subsequent rehiring) for writing a legitimate article.

Shame on the press for letting one of their own twist in the wind alone.