How do I interview cops and lawyers?

QUESTION: I am a crime & court reporter in a small community. I am also new to this beat. I was hoping for some interviewing tips when it comes to police officers (details of new charges and incidents) and lawyers in court (information about their clients and trials) Maybe a list of 10 generic questions to ask each professional. What do you think?

Answer by crime/justice reporter Rob Tripp

ANSWER: Hammering a spile into a frozen maple tree in January is a lot like interviewing some police officers and lawyers. No matter how far you pound that little metal spout into the trunk, the sap is never going to flow. So give up on the idea of “interviewing” cops and gowns, as I like to think of them. Think about “talking” to them. It’s the surefire way to get the information you need to write accurate and interesting crime/court stories. Of course, there will be times when you’ll revert to classic interview mode, but thinking about those more like conversations will also keep the info flowing.

If you’re new to the beat in a small community, it’s especially important to think first about trying to form relationships with police officers, lawyers and the other important folks, like court clerks, who keep the system working. They need to feel they can trust you, before they’ll talk candidly. If they don’t trust you, they can make your life miserable.

 How do you build relationships? With lawyers, it’s pretty straightforward. Find out where they hang out in town. In many small communities there are a few pubs and restaurants where you can regularly find members of the local bar. Go there and make friends. It’s a chance for them to see you as average Joe, and not Joe the nosy reporter. Try to have some conversations, without digging for stories. Share some personal information. Maybe that includes some honesty: “I’m new to this beat and I’m a little nervous about writing accurate stories and about missing big stories. Can you help me?”

The same advice can work with police officers, though they tend to be even more guarded than lawyers. The “blue wall” mentality really does still exist in many places, so be careful about trying to buddy up to officers. What works to build trust with police is writing fair and balanced stories consistently. Many will respect you for doing your job well. To understand your local police department and some of the personalities, seek out some feature stories, the kind of non-threatening work that gives you a chance to talk to cops in the trenches and write about their work.

There will be times when you’ll have to employ good ‘ol fashioned interviewing skills.

In the case of both police officers and lawyers:

• Never assume they’ll volunteer the juiciest bits of the story of the crime/arrest/court case. Ask as many questions as time permits or as many as they’ll answer before shutting you down. Always ask police how they caught the bad guy. There’s sometimes a fascinating story there that they may want to tell.
• Cast a big net when talking to police. Ask broad questions like: Was there anything unusual or out of the ordinary about the crook/arrest/crime?
• Get as much personal information as possible about an accused person at the time of arrest or first appearance in court. That’s when most people may be most forthcoming and when the window is open widest to publication of stories about the background of the accused crook and the circumstances of the crime.
• If police say someone is charged with breach of a court order/probation/undertaking, ask why they were subject to a court order. Are they a released sex offender?
• When you’re talking to lawyers about court cases, always remember to ask what happens next, even if it appears obvious. Much of what you see in open court is the result of closed-door negotiation.

Rob Tripp is the crime/justice reporter at the Kingston Whig-Standard. He has been writing about bad guys, courts and prisons for more than 20 years.