Illustration by Philip Anderson

Following the Force

Female police reporter earns respect from those who serve and protect. by Elaine Larsen

As a child I used to love a Saturday afternoon game of cops and robbers — just me and my brothers running around as the setting sun created hideaway shadows in our neighbor's backyard.

Sure, being a girl was OK, but I'd much rather tag along with the boys.

However, when I stumbled into a job as police reporter for a community newspaper right out of the Medill School of Journalism's graduate program, I wasn't sure what to expect. Police jargon and penal codes were a foreign language, but it was a job in journalism back home in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Those first few years weren't easy — wading painstakingly through the police log looking for clues to crime stories or making sense of transmissions that came over the airwaves of the police scanner at work, mysterious communiqués between the dispatcher and officers like "AWS and DL by name," "10-31A valid" or "Sam 1 — 10-19 for a 10-62 in the lobby."

Learning to write in the just-the-facts style of crime reporting came soon enough, but nothing prepared me for the first time I faced a suicide's bereaved relatives who didn't want their sad news made public. The man had taken a circular saw to himself in the family garage.

Hardest of all was gaining the trust of veteran police officers who didn't know what to make of an eager beaver cub reporter who was female to boot.

It didn't help that one of my predecessors was an old-school type who'd been around so long he'd walk into the police station after hours, pour himself a cup of coffee and go through the police report file drawers on his own. One longtime sergeant told me years later that the cops no longer bothered to call him on his frequent misquotes. If what he wrote sounded like something one of them could have said, that was close enough.

The man who followed in his shoes drove around on assignment in an old Mustang, a single earphone perpetually connecting him to an ancient portable scanner. Sometimes he'd beat the firetrucks to the scene.

By the time I'd taken the job, things were changing at the police department. There was a new chief at the helm who didn't much like the local newspaper reporter having so much freedom. Instead of perusing the public record reports myself, I sat every week with a lieutenant who tersely meted out meager tidbits of information while I scribbled notes.

Suffice it to say, it took me several more years, and the retirement of that chief, before I managed to break through the paramilitary barricades and earn the trust and, dare I say, respect of the police establishment.

By this time some of the long-timers had gotten used to my presence at the department — "Hey Scoop, how's it going?" they would ask. No one seemed to mind when I'd go out on a nighttime ride-along, my annual pilgrimage to the streets to witness firsthand events I reported on.

All of life's absurdities and foibles can be found on the police beat. Over the years I've devoted hundreds of column inches to what one human being will do to another in the name of love, hate, greed or revenge. Like the woman who stabbed her husband during a Christmas Eve argument, then turned around and sued the county because the paramedics couldn't save his life. Or the resident who plotted a twisted revenge on her neighbor with a homemade bomb, only to blow herself up.

Former Miami Herald reporter Edna Buchanan won a Pulitzer Prize for her day-to-day work on the crime beat. Now I know why.

Cops and reporters often consider themselves adversaries. But by nature of their jobs they also have a lot in common. Breaking down the age-old barrier between police and media goes both ways.

For every exposé of police corruption and brutality, which tend to grab the headlines, there are dozens more success stories of cops doing their best every day to make the world just a little bit safer. Rookie reporters, like rookie cops, gain credibility and trust one day — and one story — at a time.

Both soon learn that trust is fragile and must be guarded.

I knew I had earned my stripes when a captain with 30 years' experience took me aside after I'd been invited to a normally off-limits rifle range practice. "Makes sense you're here, Scoop. After all, you're just one of the boys."

Elaine Larsen (GJ86) of Pacifica, Calif., is managing editor of the Pacifica Tribune and a freelance writer.

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