Telling stories about crime is hard. That’s no excuse for not doing better.

It was May 2003. The photographer and I were in a grocery store parking lot in the better part of Washington, DC. We chain-smoked and waited for disaster to strike. When the police scanner crackled we cranked up the car and headed across town, over the Anacostia River to one of the most chronically violent sections of the city. 

We found a small brick apartment building awash in red and blue police lights. An ambulance idled by the curb. Someone had been shot. As we walked in, we felt a knot of pressure to capture something our editors could use. We pressed every button in the elevator, and stuck our heads out to listen for the sounds of a crime scene ringing through the concrete hallways. 

They were on the third floor. A bunch of first responders clustered around a doorway. They waved us off. We retreated to a stairwell, then eventually thought better of it and went outside to wait and smoke. I’d always thought of our notebooks and cameras as all-access passes to just about anywhere we wanted to go, no matter how private. But it had started to feel like entitlement. A way to invade the worst moment of someone’s life. 

Neighbors stood outside, too, in the heat. They speculated about the victim’s age. It felt as though we’d shown up uninvited at a wake. The first time we saw her, she was wheeled out in a silent procession, her bloody head almost completely covered in gauze and bandages, a bag attached to her mouth. “Breathing,” one medic said to another, “but there’s brain matter.”

We trailed the paramedics for a bit, gathering what we needed. She was twenty-one. That’s all I could find out. I had literally chased an ambulance. But I was on deadline. I needed a body. The city had given me one. 

One of the residents asked us to leave. Instead of considering what had prompted the request, I puffed out my chest and sputtered about how I was just doing my job, that I had a right to be there. The scene from that night made up the last three paragraphs that went along with a photo-essay. Before it was published I had moved on to the next assignment. 

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I still don’t know what happened that night, or who the woman was

 

THE GROCERY STORE where we had camped out is long gone. So is the police chief, Charles H. Ramsey, who is now a nationally recognized reformer. I had trouble finding the story in the archives. It only surfaced in my own memories as protests about the treatment of Black communities by the police struck America in recent weeks. 

There have been calls to redefine policing. To defund departments or at least attempt to make them less lethal and more accountable. But if we are going to change the way police departments operate, we also need to rethink how we cover them. 

I had held down the crime beat since right after college, from the tail end of the crack era to the dawn of vegan bakeries and bars with artisanal ice. As an alt-weekly journalist, I had a lot of advantages that daily crime reporters didn’t. In my first few years on the beat, there were more than seven hundred murders in DC. I wasn’t required to cover any one of them. I could go pretty much wherever I wanted. 

For my first cover story, I wrote about a police officer killing a Black teenager. With facts on our side and an editor backing me up, we didn’t mince words. The allure of the beat was powerful. It was exciting to do something that appeared to be vaguely dangerous and righteous. 

My purview became all the excesses of the war on drugs: police brutality, dubious searches, false arrests, and a backlog of unsolved murders that continued to haunt loved ones in the most ignored and least powerful parts of the city. I didn’t have to rely on cops for scoops. Public defenders and civil attorneys had documents, and a few were generous enough and pissed off enough to share with a young reporter who got outraged a lot. 

But I’ve gone back and reread some of those old stories, and I’ve come away with a nagging disappointment in what I didn’t cover, what I didn’t say, and the assumptions I made. I may have documented police abuses, but the victims of police brutality rarely got to tell their stories beyond their encounters with the police. On the page, they were often little more than the sum of their injuries and their settlement checks. 

I didn’t realize it, but I worked in a system, with rules. As much as my stories challenged the police, I often wrote from their point of view. I explained how their bad actions resulted from a lack of legitimate oversight or the grind of policing during the crack epidemic. I did not offer those they policed the same courtesy. When I read some of my crime stories now, I think I sound like a cop. 

Police reporting, like policing itself, is still very much shaped by the crack epidemic and the hysteria that fueled that era. I thought of the cop I’d done my first exposé on back in the late nineties. When a supervisor questioned his rough ways, the cop thumped his chest with his fists and declared that he was “a man of personal valor” and that “there’s a war being fought on the streets!” In 2020, cops still see themselves as soldiers, and their beats as war zones. They still earn respect via the sheer number of arrests they make.  

Cop reporting is still tethered to the police scanner. Reporters churn out crime brief after crime brief that contain little more than addresses and bodies. They still run stories where the police and the prosecutors are the only sources. This is how well-intentioned journalists turn into mouthpieces for authority. 

The crime beat is still kept separate from beats such as education and child welfare and the economy, even though we know how those can influence crime rates. Behind every rap sheet is a series of institutional failures that are never held to account, let alone regularly covered. The drug war’s acute humiliations and bewilderingly inhumane policies take a toll that is rarely explored consistently (reporters still think drug courts are examples of good reform). Reporters have described George Floyd’s criminal record—including a decades-old drug bust—as if it had any bearing on his murder.

Newsroom budget cuts and layoffs mean there is even less time to fact-check a police press release or corroborate an allegation of abuse. Local TV and blogs often don’t even try. The people in despair—from police violence, stop-and-frisk procedures, and unsolved crimes—barely register. You don’t get a moment to second-guess. 

Crime reporting shouldn’t end when the courts get involved. Dailies should stop serving up stories announcing the arrest of an individual unless they commit to covering the case to its conclusion. Investigative journalism, not to mention the Innocence Project, has shown how sunshine can expose quack science, prejudice, and corruption. But those kinds of stories take time, funding, and lengthy public-records fights.  

We also need more reporters with lived experience. This means hiring those who’ve endured the criminal justice system firsthand, whether they’ve done time in our prison system or felt the long reach of our probation system. This may do more to change the beat in fundamental ways than anything else. They’re going to ask questions all the well-intentioned Ivy League essayists never think to ask. They understand the dynamics of the criminal justice system. They can take us to places other reporters don’t ever get to see.

We have some things going for us. In the late nineties, it was extremely hard to report on killings perpetrated by the police. Finding detailed information could take years, and even then eyewitnesses might be reluctant to open up. Now there is body cam as well as eyewitness cellphone footage. We need to learn to get better access to both. 

As a society, we have a better understanding of trauma, entrenched poverty, housing instability, and underfunded schools and how they shape every aspect of our criminal justice system. We need to make a habit of treating the school social worker, the needle exchange volunteer, the legal aid attorneys, as sources equivalent to those with a gun and a badge. 

 

LONG AFTER MY DAYS ON THE BEAT, certain blocks triggered memories. The corner of 17th and Euclid Street NW where I’d spent a month reporting on a notorious crew of drug dealers. The spot along East Capitol Street where I met a senior citizen the cops had planted drugs on. The alley in Lincoln Heights where that unhinged cop killed a teen. Just like a cop, I had war stories. But I’d also remember the heaviness, the way tragedies stuck to neighborhoods long after reporters had gone, the way these tragedies left them with unwanted legacies.

I didn’t always get it right even when I knew better. But I started to when I met a mother whose twenty-year-old son had been killed in a drive-by shooting. His death had merited two sentences in a police department press release. The case had gone unsolved going on six years. 

I spent months with the mother, Patricia. She eventually talked openly about the toll her son’s death had taken on her mental health, as well as the times she had been hospitalized. While I was reporting the story, her son’s best friend checked himself into a psych ward. Eventually I left the police beat entirely to cover mental health and other social services on a full-time basis. 

Before Patricia’s story was finished, the photographer and I went to her house to take some pictures. I sat on her bed. She played me a grainy videotape of her son’s funeral. She had memorized every moment on that tape. She quoted lines of Scripture before they were read aloud. She was still annoyed at the way the priest tucked her son in and shut the coffin. She lip-synced along, through her tears. I knew I could never get close to explaining her pain. I also knew I had to try.

ICYMI: Stop using ‘officer-involved’ shooting

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Jason Cherkis covered police and crime for more than a decade at the Washington City Paper. He is currently a freelance journalist and is working on a book about suicide for Random House.