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THE POLICE BEAT

Basic Numbers

One out of every four households is hit by crime each year. One in 20 households is hit by a violent crime. A rape is committed every five minutes, a murder every 21 minutes. The number of crime victims - almost 35 million. About 2.5 million women are the victims of violent crime each year. The most frequent crime against them is assault, often domestic assault. More than two-thirds of women victims knew their attackers.

Meanwhile, the prison population is exploding - from 300,000 in the mid 1970s to more than 1.7 million in the mid 1990s. In recent years the public has demanded longer prison sentences. Parole has been eliminated in some states. And increasing numbers of people are imprisoned for drug offenses.

The incarceration rate in the U.S. is 445 per 100,000 people. In England it's 97; France 81; Japan 45.

Yet crime has been decreasing in recent years. In New York, murders went from more than 2,000 a year to less than half that. By the late 1990s the national murder rate was the lowest since 1967. No one is sure what's responsible for the drop. Some believe it's due to tougher policing and longer prison sentences. Others think it's because there were fewer young men in their 20s - the group most likely to commit crime - during this period.

Who's Affected

Crime hits the poor, the young and members of minority groups most frequently. Half of the victims of violent crimes are aged 12 to 24, even though they only represent a fourth of the population. Blacks and Hispanics of all ages are more at risk from crime than whites of the same age: 1 in 30 blacks, 1 in 35 Hispanics, 1 in 58 whites. Murder rates for blacks are eight times higher than for whites.

Large cities are hit hardest by violent crime. An example: There were 27 murders in Milwaukee in 1965. Thirty years later, with a smaller population, there were 170. There are so many murders in the LA area that only half lead to arrests and charges. Only a third result in convictions or murder or manslaughter.

The Cost

More than $75 billion is spent annually on cops, courts, prisons and jails and the parole and probation systems. That's $300 per person, per year.

Types of Crime

The are two general categories of felonies: violent crime and property crime. Violent crime includes murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. Property crime includes burglary, larceny-theft, motor-vehicle theft.

Burglary is a crime against property, usually involving a break-in at a home, office or store. Robbery is a crime against a person, including the removal of the person's goods or money with force or threat of force. This is a violent crime.

Getting Info

The police beat is one of the most important in journalism. Readers want to know about crime in their community. But the level of cooperation reporters get from cops varies not only from department to department but from officer to officer. As a general rule, cops tend to be suspicious and wary of reporters. Obviously, this is a generalization. But it's something to keep in mind when you've covering the police beat.

Regardless of the reaction cops have to us, certain basic information should always be available. Arrest reports involving adults are a matter of public record. Such reports should include the name of the alleged perpetrator, the nature of the crime, etc. 

However, if a juvenile is arrested their name is generally withheld from the press unless that juvenile is charged with a serious felony such as murder. Then prosecutors sometimes elect to release the name. Also, police often withhold the names of sexual assault victims.

Aside from things like arrest reports, statistics are also very important on the crime beat. Stats from individual departments can often be obtained from those departments. For national statistics, check the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, the most comprehensive national database of crime stats and trends available.

Police reporters write several different kinds of stories. Breaking news obviously constitutes a big part of the police beat. But cop reporters also do many longer features about ongoing investigations and profiles of individual officers. Police reporters also do interpretative reporting looking at changes in law enforcement policies and procedures, and investigative reporting of things like police corruption.   

Good Web Sites
FBI Bureau of Justice Stats PA Crime Stats
Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Stats

 

Courtesy: News Reporting and Writing, by Melvin Mencher