Murders, car crashes, fires, and floods are just a few of the things that happen while working on the crime beat. Read as our Editor Lauren Williams as she reflects on her former life as a crime reporter.
Being in the Los Angeles Police Department overnight, an eerie silence would fill the building – not at all a reflection of the havoc that was raging outside. It was the weekend in Los Angeles. Any number of things could be happening. Homicides and gang shootings, house and brush fires, celebrities wrecking their cars or getting out of jail and being sent to rehab, parties getting out of hand in Hollywood, people being rescued from the tracks of an oncoming train.
I worked on a wire. Rather than a newspaper that publishes or a television or radio station that airs their stories, the stories I would write would get sent into a bank of stories online that stations could later use. We are supposed to be the news for the news, what reporters at other news agencies read before they go to work and ideally we’re supposed to have the story first (although more than once that didn’t turn out to be the case).
It’s sad to say, but my favorite stories were the ones about fires and homicides. My constant hope was that someone would read a story and come forward with information that could catch a murderer, or read a story about evacuations, closed roads, or open shelters during a forest fire and quickly get to safety.
I’d be lying if I said these stories didn’t sometimes get to me. Once while driving home at the end of my shift, at about 7 a.m., I drove past a car crash I had just written about. It was early Sunday morning, and there was no traffic in either direction just outside downtown L.A. A blue minivan was on its roof in the off ramp from the highway, and officers were just responding to the scene.
Although I didn’t see anything as I sped by, I had listened to the scene unfold over the police scanners 30 minutes earlier. The driver, who police believed was speeding down the off ramp, crashed into the sidewall and was thrown from the car instantly killing him. To see the accident in person, I no longer felt so far removed. I wasn’t just writing anonymously for another reporter to later go out and cover. I was feet away from where a man had lost his life. Soon his family would be notified and the course of their lives would be entirely different from this day on.
But a reporter isn’t supposed to think like that. Without showing how people are affected by an event, a story isn’t a story – but as a reporter there has to be some distance. No attachment, no emotions. Doing this without forming any kind of emotion has been my constant struggle as a journalist.
Covering the police beat, however, wasn’t without its moments of levity. One Christmas night, a police officer used his scanner to sing Christmas carols to other officers on patrol. The police putting in their time at the front desk also didn’t seem to take their jobs too seriously, blasting movies and bumping music into the early hours of the morning, even though some of us had to use the phone.
The most exhausting stories are fire and flood stories because they need constant updates. The phone glued to my ear, I’d be calling dispatchers at the city fire department to ask how many fire engines they had responding to a fire and if there were new evacuations, making them totally furious with me. They had better things to do than dealing with a reporter.
That was another part of the job – being OK with people getting angry with you. Regularly I’d roust people out of bed to get information for me, or call some emergency number that wasn’t intended for the media because I needed to get a story up on the wire as soon as possible. Editors, dispatchers, night watch commanders, and people at the coroner’s office would regularly give me an earful.
Things like a break for lunch were unheard of. What if something big happened in the 30-minute window of your lunch break? Even to go to the bathroom I would run from my seat hoping that no one would call. After working a few months on the police beat, I could tell you which local LAPD stations were friendly with reporters and which would hardball you, and I had the numbers for the coroner, city fire, and LAPD public information officer memorized. I spoke police shorthand like I speak English. OIS is an officer-involved shooting, DOA – dead on arrival, level 2 means no sirens necessary, where a level 3 means backup with sirens needed. I knew to wait until 11 p.m. when the friendly guy at the coroner began his shift. After being fixed on maps eight-hours a day, I could be left blindfolded almost anywhere (or anywhere crime happened) in Los Angeles and confidently find my way home.
The end of the Sunday shift was the worst. With two days without sleep, Monday mornings I was a zombie, barely able to drag myself home and get into bed for my 12-hour hibernation. Despite all this, I was always happy to head into work each weekend for the excitement of getting a good story.