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American Journalism Review
The High-Stress Police Beat  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 1995

The High-Stress Police Beat   

A steady diet of violent crime, fatal accidents and human tragedy takes a toll on reporters. Some think newspapers and TV stations should do more to help their staffers cope.

By Chris Harvey
Harvey, a former AJR managing editor and a former associate editor at washingtonpost.com, teaches Web writing and publishing at the University of Maryland.     

Related reading:
   » A Day in the Life

He still remembers minute details from a crash last fall, when a car carrying two sisters to community college classes crossed the center line into an oncoming lumber truck.

The coolness of the morning air. The slickness of the road. The snapshots that had blown out of the car and lay strewn about the road.

Flames had engulfed both vehicles. The truck driver had kicked his window out and escaped. The young women had not.

"It was probably the worst thing I've ever seen," says Matt Nelson, then a reporting intern with Minneapolis' Star Tribune. "As they pulled the lumber truck off the car, one of the victim's heads rolled to the side and steam rolled out of her chest.

"We're not trained emergency workers, and that sort of thing sticks with you," says Nelson, 26, now a police reporter for the Duluth News-Tribune. "You go home and hug your family and tell them you love them. And for the next few weeks you wonder when your lumber truck is coming."

Horror and tragedy frequently visit reporters covering the police beat, but they are by no means the only stresses encountered on the job.

Like few other reporters, police reporters must remain ever vigilant, ready to scramble to the scene of a shooting, stabbing, accident or fire. Unlike disaster or war correspon-

dents, they can't leave after a few months if they've had enough.

Many keep their pagers on 24 hours a day, moving them from belt to bedside table. Some surround themselves with the urgent crackle of police scanners at work and in their homes and cars.

"The soundtrack of my life is a police scanner," says St. Paul Pioneer Press crime reporter Tim Nelson, Matt's 28-year-old brother. The elder sibling keeps five scanners – tuned to different emergency channels – running in his one-room apartment.

Occasionally, crime reporters find themselves in danger, with a gun or a knife pointed at them, or a fist in their face. Often, they find themselves trying to pull information from reluctant or distressed sources who, unlike elected officials, have nothing to gain by talking to them.

"My job was to get information from cops who weren't supposed to give me information," and to talk to victims' families "at a time when they really didn't need to be answering personal questions," says former Washington Times reporter Margaret Rankin.

A decade of increases in violent crimes has in some cases meant additional work. Between 1984 and 1993, the FBI reports, there was a 31 percent increase nationally in murders. "We just can't keep up with it," says reporter Thomas J. Gibbons Jr., 50, who has been covering crime in Philadelphia for 23 years, the last 14 at the Inquirer. "It's to the point now where it's forget about lunch. We can't even go to the bathroom."

Some reporters thrive under the pressure, secure in the knowledge that they can produce order from chaos and master difficult situations. "I love the work and I love the rush," says Tim Nelson. "I really get a charge out of it."

Others cope with beat stresses as best they can, picking up unhealthy habits such as smoking or drinking, numbing their emotions to the unfolding tragedies or occasionally finding themselves gripped by nightmares or crying jags.

Some last a few years and then find they need a change. Fear, depression or cynicism overtake them. "I knew I had to get out when I started saying things like, 'Oh, another dead baby story,' " says Rankin, 31, who quit the Washington Times in September 1993 to take preparatory classes for medical school. "It's the equivalent of, 'Oh, another nuclear holocaust story,' " she says in disgust.

Dr. Beverly J. Anderson, who runs a counseling program for Washington's police department, worries about crime reporters. "The bottom line is you can't continually expose an individual to high stress or continued stress without it always being a negative factor," she says. "It's the law of diminishing returns. You don't have infinite energy. The hypervigilance uses up defense mechanisms needed to fight illness... Sooner or later you will succumb to illness, emotionally, mentally or physically."

Police and the reporters covering them share many of the same stress factors, she says: work overload; erratic sleep and work hours; exposure to other stress carriers, including bosses and victims; and role conflicts. She says it's tough to be detached and stoic on the street and then come home to a family expecting emotional intimacy.

"People don't ever get used to it," Anderson says. "You tolerate it for a time." But if you don't address the stress, she says, "when it comes back, it's like a stopped-up sewer."

She recommends that police reporters, like police officers and firefighters, be debriefed by a counselor whenever they are exposed to murders, fires, floods, bombings, suicides and barricade situations – incidents "outside the range of usual human experiences that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone."

She says counseling sessions should be mandatory. People need to be told that the feelings and symptoms they are experiencing are normal. "People are much more comfortable with denial," Anderson says. "But you don't ask people if they're going to get immunizations."

When Rankin moved from covering society parties to covering crime in the late 1980s, she thought it would be glamorous and gritty, a ticket to the front page. She also thought it would be instructive. She believed getting up close to the street slaughter in Washington would help her understand why so many young men were killing each other.

"I had delusions of being able to figure this out, but I eventually became disillusioned with it," says Rankin. "Nothing ever made more sense than it did at first."

She remembers being simultaneously fascinated and repelled by her first murder scene, in the driveway of a wealthy family's house. "I was still doing some society stuff. I was in high heels and stockings and a silk blouse" while standing over the body of a teenager leaking rivulets of blood, Rankin recalls.

When officials rolled the teenager over, Rankin could see one eye had been shot out. Still, she moved closer, "until one detective there said, 'You act like you've never seen a dead body before.' And I said I hadn't," Rankin says.

She remembers thinking this was so unlike the deaths she had seen on television. "On TV tragedies, everyone is upset. It seemed [there] no one was."

Body soon followed body. As one of the Washington Times' two full time police reporters, Rankin found herself writing about 200 stories a year, most of them "the night's fire, the night's drowning, the night's shooting." In 1993, the year she left the paper, 454 people were murdered in the nation's capital. "I started to think everybody was bad," she says. "You don't feel like you can trust anybody in that world."

She became worried about her safety. When she came home at night to her apartment in Alexandria, Virginia, she would search for potential killers in her closets, "my heart in my throat." She found herself sleeping the weekends away, too lethargic to get out of bed. The job "had a huge depressing effect on my life," she says.

She also found herself crying uncontrollably when interviewing victims' families. One incident particularly distressed her. A mother had left her toddler in her boyfriend's care while she went across the street to make a telephone call. The boyfriend let the child play with a gun and the boy apparently shot himself in the head. "I couldn't imagine," Rankin recalls, "why anyone would give a gun to a child, and that a mother could love someone who could kill her child."

The tragedies that stay with crime reporters are the ones they can imagine striking themselves or their families. For David Simon, 34, a police reporter at Baltimore's Sun since 1983, it was a plane crash in western Virginia. A commuter plane headed for Weyers Cave had hit the side of a mountain. Simon says he slipped around the police line and climbed up the back of the mountain to get closer to the wreckage.

Vestiges of the passengers' lives greeted him: Notebooks. A woman's shoe. Luggage burst open. "There's something really humanizing when you walk through the debris," he says. Tired rescue workers punished him for getting so close by making him carry one of the bodies, wrapped in a see-through bag, down the mountain.

He was so shaken, he says, he couldn't bring himself to take a commuter flight back to Baltimore. "I had to drive a rental car all the way back," Simon says. But, he adds, "that was more about me than it was about the bodies." He says he never liked flying.

Car wrecks get to Tom Hallman Jr., a crime beat reporter at the Oregonian in Portland. Dead guys in suits remind him too much of himself. "A car accident is something we can all relate to," says Hallman, 39, who in his 13 years on the beat has shifted from covering breaking crime stories to writing crime features. "Most can't relate to a drive-by shooting."

The horror of unexpected tragedy is magnified when the victim is an acquaintance or a friend. Dave Statter, 40, a general assignment reporter for WUSA-TV in Washington, and Brian Reilly, a crime reporter for the Washington Times, say some of the hardest stories they have had to cover followed the November 22, 1994, shooting at police headquarters in the District of Columbia.

Two FBI agents and a police sergeant were killed by a gunman who mistook the sergeant for someone else. Reilly and Statter knew the murdered sergeant and many of the grieving officers.

"I remember somebody was talking to me, upset about what they had seen in the room... I wasn't sure if I was supposed to bring out my note pad or hug them," says Reilly, 27.

Both reporters had been in a press conference on the same floor of the building when the shooting erupted. Statter had to go live from police headquarters shortly after. "It was very difficult," says Statter, who had known the sergeant for 10 years. "It was all I could do to control my emotions on the air."

During the weeks following the shootings, Reilly says he was certain he was developing ulcers. He had trouble sleeping. His stomach hurt. He was smoking more. "I started buying my own cigarettes. I hadn't done that since the eighth grade," he says. A doctor told him his pains weren't from ulcers, but from stress. He instructed Reilly to drink less and stop smoking.

For some reporters, the toughest assignments are dealing with the grieving, especially those mourning lost children. "If there were things that haunted me, it was the living, grieving people," says Kevin Harrington, a former police reporter for the Milwaukee Journal. "Mothers crying at crime scenes. I used to have dreams that included them."

Harrington, 36, left the paper in 1993 to work as a victim-witness specialist for the county district attorney's office. But a crime scene at a Milwaukee public housing project still bothers him.

Two teenagers had been playing with a gun. It went off, leaving one dead. When the victim's mother got to the scene, "she was keening," Harrington says. "It was beyond crying and screaming."

As Harrington walked to his car, he passed a bakery. "And you could smell baking bread. And so for a long time, when I would smell baking bread," he would see that keening mother, Harrington says.

Gibbons agrees that interviewing the grieving can be tough, "particularly if it's a youngster or a teenager." He says he has rarely cried at work, but did this year on Good Friday. He had gone to the home of a "young North Philadelphia lad, a budding athlete who was gunned down the night before while sitting on the front steps of a friend's house."

Gibbons went to the house to get a photo of the 13-year-old boy and to interview the family. "I don't know what it was, whether I let my guard down. But while I was interviewing the dead boy's cousin, I started almost to rack," he says. "I almost had to excuse myself and leave the room. It..kind of alarmed me."

Emotions sometimes surface at odd times. Debbi Wilgoren, a Washington Post crime reporter from December 1990 to August 1993, says she generally enjoyed the beat. "I really care about people. I like people stories," the 27-year-old reporter says. But while covering crime she would occasionally "get very upset, like it would just come over me."

The most dramatic instance, she says, was one Sunday morning in 1992, when she had spread the morning paper out on the floor to read a story by a colleague that was "supposed to be about people who are shot but don't die." The piece focused on a 16-year-old Marylander who got shot while jogging in Northwest Washington "and was working his way back."

But when Wilgoren turned the page she was confronted with descriptions of the youth's death. Several weeks after the shooting, a fatal blood clot had developed. "I just started to cry," says Wilgoren, who now covers religion for the Post. "I was crying for him, but I think I was also crying for all these other people."

Fears for personal safety are not uncommon, or unfounded. Reporters say they feel most threatened when they go canvassing neighborhoods a day or two after a crime, when the police are long gone. But most reject wearing body vests for protection. "If it's very obvious, it's likely to make you a target," says Statter.

"It would hurt me more than help me," says Washington Post crime reporter Ruben Castaneda. "What kind of message would that send to people, if I walk up in body armor?"

Castaneda, 34, says if someone wanted to hurt him, they could do it even if he was wearing protective clothes. "Most people in the city are shot at very close range. Body armor doesn't protect the head," he says.

He has had several brushes with danger. Once, he had a long blade pulled on him while trying to interview a group of men hanging out on a Washington street corner. "It was a light feature story about the popularity at the time of bright headbands or skull caps," Castaneda recalls.

The situation turned from playful to menacing when one of the men pulled Castaneda's notebook from his hands while another "swooshed the air" with a "small sword, or a really big knife," before stabbing the ground with it. Castaneda managed to regain control of the interview and his notebook.

He says he was also punched by a gang member during the Los Angeles riots and tear-gassed during disturbances in Washington, D.C.

Gibbons, a former Philadelphia police officer who was shot while on the force in 1970, says he felt threatened two years ago, while reporting "a bizarre story that started with a body found floating in the Delaware River." The investigation took him to a house in South Philadelphia. "A guy, high as a kite, opened the door. He had a gun in his hands."

Gibbons says he told the man to put the gun down, that he was a reporter. The man didn't, but beckoned him inside. They sat talking on the couch. Then the man asked Gibbons to come to the kitchen to look at evidence of a fight. "He's got the gun in his hand and he's behind me. All of my police instincts tell me I shouldn't. I could be horse meat before sunrise."

Gibbons walked into the kitchen, but helped defuse the situation with a joking threat. "I said to him, 'Don't you shoot me, you son of a bitch.' He kind of laughed... We went back in the living room, and I left."

Peter Hermann of Baltimore's Sun had to be fished out of the water as an abandoned building burned in the city's Fells Point neighborhood. A firefighter he was walking with and interviewing "took a right and I didn't," says the 28-year-old Hermann, somewhat sheepishly. He lost his shoes, his glasses, his pager and his notes to the murky water of the Inner Harbor.

The harsh realities of the job can also affect a reporter's world – or neighborhood – view. Hermann, who moved from a suburban reporting job to the city crime beat a year ago, casually points out Baltimore landmarks while he drives from an afternoon shooting (no bodies, no story) back to the newsroom.

"This corner here, Homewood and North, is where Nathaniel Hurt lives," says Hermann, as he darts through afternoon traffic in his red Toyota Celica, scanner squawking. "He shot a 13-year-old to death from his second floor fire escape. He was messing with his car," Hermann says of the victim. Hurt was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and is awaiting sentencing.

Driving to the police staging area for an evening drug bust, Hermann passes a park in the southeast corner of the city. The park looks quiet, even serene. It's not. "This is a big prostitution area," Hermann says.

Later that night, driving back to work following the bust that netted police more than a kilo of cocaine, a Hardee's restaurant makes Hermann nostalgic. "They arrested a drug dealer here," he says. "They let him go through the drive-through. But they didn't let him finish his hamburger."

The beat also exposes reporters to facts of life they would rather avoid. "There are certain things you don't need to know," says Melinda Wilson, 37, a police reporter for the Detroit News. "One is the sound a woman makes when her child has been shot. The other is how a body looks during various stages of decomposition."

But gruesome scenes and tough neighborhoods aren't the only mine fields crime reporters must negotiate. Newsrooms have their own hazards. Information must often be wheedled, cajoled and manipulated from reluctant sources. Quotes from police officers and prosecutors wishing to remain anonymous must be attributed carefully, so that identification isn't obvious, reporters say.

"Changing a line around can really hurt a beat reporter," says the Oregonian's Hallman.

Editors sometimes forget that.

Detectives and prosecutors usually don't.

But editors aren't the only ones who have inserted problems into copy. Wilson says shortly after she came to the crime beat a year ago from the business desk, she wrote a story about a decomposing body that had dripped blood into a woman's apartment below.

She talked to the homicide detective, aware that the city detectives did not like to have their names in the paper. She used his name anyway, assuming he would not mind given the unusual nature of the story. "He was crazed," she says. "I sent him flowers. He still hasn't talked to me."

If crime reporters want to stay well, they need to take care of themselves, D.C. police counselor Anderson says. Take vitamins, she advises. Work out. Allow time for relaxation. And learn the "high signs" of stress and seek help when they strike.

Symptoms of problematic stress include irritability, lethargy, attention and concentration problems, and changes in sex patterns. Sometimes traumatic events are re-experienced. "Whether you want to or not, it plays back in your mind," Anderson says.

Other signs include avoidance, "not having any feelings" or not being able to express emotions, Anderson says. They also include feeling isolated and "closed out, even at parties."

Some newspapers are stepping up counseling help for reporters who have covered tragedies. For example, New York Times editors are authorized to encourage reporters who seem distressed by a story to seek in-house, confidential counseling, says counselor Patricia Drew (see Free Press, June).

"It's an opportunity to take care of yourself..even if you think you're handling it OK," Drew says. "We like to offer it as a preventative effort, rather than wait until people are so symptomatic that it is obvious to everyone."

Baltimore's Sun is considering doing more for its reporters, says City Editor Jim Asher. He says he met with other editors at the paper in May and they agreed counseling "sounds like a good idea" for reporters who cover tragedies. "But we haven't yet taken the next step" to work out the details, he says.

Wilson of the Detroit News says she would like to see more done for reporters industrywide. "Every other profession that deals with this gets some kind of stress counseling. But we're not supposed to be stressed at all. We're not supposed to have feelings."

She says she has been depressed since she came to the beat, and wishes she could find a support group in the Detroit area. A single mother, she says she can't talk to her four- and eight-year-old daughters about work.

"I don't want to share all that sadness with them," she says. "How can you tell a four-year-old kid, 'Mommy is writing about a lady killed in a burnt-out building and they only identified her by her gall bladder scars?' "

Many crime reporters say they are not interested in counseling but have developed other coping strategies.

"Just try and keep your head up and don't be afraid to complain," says the Inquirer's Gibbons. "There are other reporters in this room. I get a lot of comfort out of unburdening myself to them."

Some say they resort to humor so dark outsiders would find it repulsive. "People laugh sometimes about tragedy as a way to be tough," says Portland's Hallman.

The Post's Wilgoren says she found writing therapeutic. "Look for ways to explore the issues behind the crimes," she says. "It's the way the job ought to be done. And it helps you work through some of the grief."

Many reporters say doing longer projects gives them time to regroup emotionally. "I just had a break of a month, working on a story on how to survive a fire," says Washington television reporter Statter. "That kept me away from chasing the fires. Now I'm ready to get back at it."

The Sun's Simon, who has taken two sabbaticals to research and write books, is a proponent of taking time for more ambitious stories, including those written in the narrative form. He says they're good for both the reader and the writer.

"You can't make a drug murder or arrest story interesting writing it the same way," says Simon, who spent a year with the city's homicide detectives before writing the book, "Homicide." "You have to go deeper."

He also argues some reporters just aren't cut out for crime reporting, and shouldn't be made to do it. "If you have somebody really good on cops, it pays to try to keep him there," Simon says. "But some people temperamentally will be freaked out at the horror show of it." They should be moved to another beat, in Simon's view.

Other reporters say it helps to keep their job – and their role at crime scenes – in perspective. "We don't see as much as they see," says Hermann of police. "Seeing the body on the ground is a lot different than having to shoot somebody, put them there."

Hallman agrees. "I tell you, I could never be a cop. We dip our foot into this thing. [But] I couldn't do this day in and out.

"It's a dangerous, unforgiving world," he adds. A reporter's mission "is to relay that to our readers." l

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