Cops won’t talk to me because I’m a reporter

QUESTION: I’m a fairly new reporter out in Jasper, Alberta. In provincial court recently, there were several first appearances for some alleged offenders. No information was really given and the matters were put over. I tried talking to the police to get the date a person was arrested, location, time and general circumstances. The RCMP stated, “We’re not obliged to release information unless it’s in the public safety to do so.” So, what are the police’s obligations to share info in Alberta and if they aren’t obliged to share that info, how could I get it — aside from just waiting for it to come up in court?

Cameron Strandberg
The Fitzhugh Newspaper
Jasper, AB.

Answer by Toronto Star reporter Robyn Doolittle

ANSWER: The short answer: They don’t have to give you anything. And from personal experience, I can tell you that even if you are seeking information that they are obliged to give you, they won’t always do that either. It’s really easy for an investigator to say that releasing that data will jeopardize the prosecution. Then you are officially out of luck.

So here’s the long answer: Cops are just like anyone else. A little sugar goes a long way. They don’t have to help you. They’re doing you a favour. Come at them from this perspective. If you start rhyming off the need for an open press that officer isn’t going to give you the time of day. No one wants to be told how to do their job, especially by an idiot journalist.

Okay, so that’s your mindset. Next step: I find the vast majority of officers are totally fair and helpful. It’s not that they want to be secretive; they just don’t want to get in trouble for blabbing to those jerk wad journalists. For this reason, the absolute best way to get information about a case is to have some already.

When you were in court, they should have said the arrest date. If not, you can ask the court clerk.

No arrest date? The case should have a prosecutor attached to the file. Ask them. Also, I’ve never seen a first appearance where the accused’s particulars aren’t read aloud. Name. Age. Spelling. Address. Charge. If there’s a bail situation, you’ll get phone numbers, and the surety’s information too. Is there a parent? Did the judge say anything about people they aren’t allowed to speak to (aka the conditions)? Is a victim or their family in court? Piece together as much as you can before you even make a call.

Now, bluff it.

When you call the cops, sound like you call all the time. The key is to extract small bits of information as you go, so when you make the big call to the investigator they’ll think you know everything and they don’ t feel like they’re blabbing.

Step 1: Call the specific division that’s handling the case. If you’re not sure, call the duty desk (or main line) and very matter-of-factly say “I’m looking into this case involving Joe Blow McGee. What division is handling it?”

Full stop. No more questions. Quick answer.

Now call the division directly. Don’t get transferred. Use police lingo. In Toronto, I’d call the division and say, “Hey can you transfer me to CIB” (Criminal Identification Bureau – each division has one and they handle pretty well everything). “Hey yeah it’s Robyn (like you know me) from the Star. I’m looking for the OIC (Officer in charge) for the Joe Blow McGee robberies.”

They can look it up using his name. Throw out the odd tidbit. The arrest time. Or, the guy’s home address. His age. Do it all very matter-of-factly, as if you have a long list of particulars sitting in front of you and you’re picking things at random to help the officer. They’ll be thinking “This person has done their homework.”  

“So Joe Blow McGee is 29?” Maybe you’re guessing based on what he looked like in court. The cop may correct you, “Um no. My records say he’s 31?”

So you might say, “Okay so I’m just looking for a few details about the arrest. I have it happening at 7:15 pm at such and such an address. Apparently the home was broken into?”

Long pause. Wait.

Ask for a staff sergeant. Get some of the information from them. The key is to not assume one person is going to hand you “the goods.” The more info you know, the more you’ll get.

Make conversation. Build rapport. Let them know they can trust you in the future. Be fair in the paper and never sell them out.

Until a recent move to the city hall bureau, Robyn Doolittle spent several years covering the police beat for the Toronto Star