Now that the Californians Aware police audit has been released, I’d like to share some thoughts from my personal experience, since I was one of the journalists who visited some of the public safety departments.
First, I learned that it really is difficult sometimes to get information from police, sheriff’s and CHP offices. I visited four agencies on my road trip to the Peninsula: Redwood City CHP, San Carlos police, Half Moon Bay police and Pacifica police. At almost each agency I visited, I got suspicious looks and reluctant public records supervisors when I asked to look at the simplest of information, such as the department’s recent arrest or crime information.
At one department, I asked to see the statement of economic interest for its senior officer, which tells you his income, property holdings and investments. They had no clue what I was talking about. One agency even denied, after the fact, that I even went there.
On the other hand, this experience taught me how difficult it is to be a regular citizen seeking public information. Now, mind you, all of the journalists involved in the audit had to “act” like regular citizens to do the audit so that police departments could be tested on how they respond to the average Joe. But it reminded me that for that one day we had to take off our reporter hats. Always staying true to our “citizen” selves is what keeps journalists grounded.
This can be a refreshing exercise for all journalists. They should try it sometime.
Although I didn’t have a totally terrible experience, I still feel like I got rejected (like Shaquille O’Neal). In most cases, I only had to spend about 10 minutes in each department to find out what I already knew: Police are here to protect and to serve, but sometimes, all they’re protecting are themselves.