LJWorld.com weblogs Dispatches from the Academy
Day Two: Reports from the field
Journal-World reporters Shaun Hittle and Ian Cummings are attending the Lawrence Police Department's 2013 Citizens' Academy twice per week for the next month. On Wednesdays and Fridays, they'll highlight a few things they learned from the night before.
About five minutes into our second Citizens' Academy class, I decided to tell the captain I was dropping out. I didn’t sign up for this and I wasn’t cut out for it.
It's not that I was afraid of hitting the streets with Lawrence’s Finest. I assumed high-speed car chases, stakeouts and robberies in progress were all possibilities for our Citizens’ Academy class, and I was ready for it. Or so I believed.
But Thursday night we talked about paperwork. Hours and hours of paperwork. Incredible quantities of paperwork that add up to hundreds of thousands of written reports a year. As it turns out, a huge part of policing is writing down names, addresses and descriptions of the daily incidents and reported crimes that officers respond to every day.
Not to mention writing tickets. It made my hands cramp up just to hear them talk about it.
This discouraged me as a prospective police recruit, which I wasn’t (I had to be reminded repeatedly that this was not the actual police academy) but I soon learned there were reasons for all of it.
Almost all of those reports eventually find their way to the department’s website, along with a lot of other information, and that can actually be pretty useful.
Officer Jim Welsh and Sgt. Adam Heffley gave us a tour of the website and showed us some of the ways the department has wrangled all the information to make it useful to the public, beyond the department’s own need to keep track of things.
For example, all of the information goes to creating a set of cool-looking, constantly-updated public maps that show if my neighborhood is a “hot spot” for crime (it is) and make for some entertaining web browsing. Officer Welsh took some time to show us all the different combinations of maps, with different crimes and different time periods going back years.
And elsewhere on the website, we saw regularly updated pages showing what police around the city were doing and who had a warrant out for their arrest. You might be surprised to find yourself here. All of those reports the police take down for crimes and car accidents are available free to the public online.
Now, I was starting to come around to this kind of police work. Any of us could check out crime patterns and figure out which parts of town were the most dangerous. Much of this was actually useful to me professionally.
Others weren't as thrilled. Some of our classmates were surprised and unhappy to learn that their names, addresses, phone numbers and driver’s license numbers are published online in each report if they happened to be the victim or witness of a crime, or even a car accident. We had a long talk about privacy and the dangers of identity theft.
It's the law, our police officer instructors said. Kansas, like most states, has laws guaranteeing open access to these kinds of public records. As my classmates grew more annoyed, I slouched down in my seat and tried to become invisible. As a reporter, those kinds of laws make my existence possible.
We took a break to eat the rest of the pizza and cookies the department had provided us with, and checked out some (almost) real-time and interactive online policing. The officers showed off their “48 Hours of Calls” feature, which lists all of the calls police have responded to in the past two days. Our instructors only sounded a little like they were bragging when they noted it is the third most popular Lawrence city government web page. Take that, public works.
And they make sure to note report-writing time on the call list, just so you know they are working in those cars and not just sleeping.
We talked about radios, and in-car video cameras, and Tasers. How often do police use those, we asked? As it happens, a report describing the incident is posted online each time, and there are seven such instances listed for 2011. You can find that, as well as a wealth of numbers and policies of the department, under the “About Us” directory.
Oh, and if you want to make a complaint — or have a compliment — about a police officer, you can send it directly to Sgt. Heffley here.
I told the captain I would continue with the academy, but only on a few conditions. I work alone, I told him, I don't do paperwork, and I solve crimes my way. He was kind enough to say I could come back next week.
To see Shaun Hittle's Day One post, click here.