Journalism

If You Want to Report a Crime, Don’t Call a Newsroom First!

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More and more in our social media world, people are turning to the wrong place when they decide to report a crime. Their new ‘first’ choice makes no sense.

I will never forget that call. A few years back, I answered a ringing phone in the newsroom. I was greeted by an upset woman who said she called to report a crime.

So I asked her what happened.

She told me she had just left a gas station with her toddler in her vehicle. She said she had pumped her gas while a man in a big pickup truck glared at her. Apparently, he must have felt she wasn’t moving quickly enough.

She told me he got visibly upset, yelled some unspecified obscenities at her, and pointed a handgun at them. He then sped away.

I asked the obvious question.

In a newsroom, when we receive such a call, we always ask this one question: Which law enforcement agency is investigating this?

For various reasons, most news agencies will want to reach out to law enforcement and get a copy of the police report they’ve completed. That will sometimes give us more information about the investigation.

We will rarely do a story about an alleged crime if law enforcement has not been notified.

I nearly dropped the phone when she answered the question.

“Oh, I haven’t called the police yet.”

I tried for a moment to put myself in her place. Some crazy man had just pointed a gun at me and my child. Who would I call first?

A newsroom didn’t make the short list.

I asked her where this happened, got the address of the business and determined, as best as I could ascertain, which law enforcement agency has jurisdiction. I told her to call that agency immediately while the incident was fresh in her mind. Then I invited her to call us back once police took the incident report.

But before she did anything else, she should definitely call law enforcement.

She didn’t call back.

I didn’t find that immediately suspicious. The effort to report a crime may have taken longer than she expected. That does happen.

I reached out to the law enforcement agency in question that afternoon to request the incident report.

They checked.

Then they got back to me: they couldn’t find an incident report that matched what I’d described.

That I did find odd.

Honestly, I found that more suspicious than anyone calling a newsroom to report a crime before they’d call proper authorities.

If someone pointed a gun at me or my child (if I had one), I’d be on the phone to 911 right away. I’ve worked in TV for nearly 30 years and it wouldn’t even occur to me to call the TV station before police.

Maybe it was a prank.

She sure sounded convincing as she related what happened.

But a newsroom can’t go out and investigate a crime involving a firearm. We can’t run a check on a license plate number. We certainly can’t get a search warrant.

That’s why law enforcement is the first place to call when you need to report a crime.

By all means, call the newsroom after that. But not before.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.