In Defense Of Police Blotter Columns

After Slate writer Leon Neyfakh promoted the Sheriff's Calls column in The Point Reyes Light newspaper in Marin County, California, he had second thoughts.

The Sheriff's Calls column details the litany of calls received every day from the Marin County Sheriff's Department, everything from the humurous, to the mundane, to unfounded complaints, to deaths. His original piece had praised it as a great, almost entertaining read.

"The column is by turns sad and funny, precise and mysterious. Reading it is a bit like eating a bag of assorted, subtly flavored jellybeans."

But one reader had a different take. Summer Brennan, a former reporter for The Point Reyes Light, said, "It feels callous to me to take people’s calls for help, which serve no functional purpose to the community at large, and turn them into public spectacle.”

Her comments got Neyfakh to thinking about just what stories journalists should, and shouldn't, be telling. 

His second thoughts aren't without merit, and those are questions journalists should, in fact, be asking. But can it really be said that these columns serve no functional purpose?

The true public benefit from columns like Sheriff's Calls is that that they give a glimpse into what the police deal with everyday. A sample from May 23, 2015 reads like this:

SAN GERONIMO VALLEY: At 8:45 a.m. a gray dog was running in and out of the boulevard.

SEASHORE: At 9:38 a.m. someone had received a texts from a friend saying she was going to commit suicide and including a Google map of Heart’s Desire Beach.

SAN GERONIMO VALLEY: At 10:21 a.m. a motorist who had chased her dog down a hill said she now could not get back up the hill. 

POINT REYES STATION: At 10:57 a.m. a problem arose with a custody exchange.

What the public often doesn't realize about police work is that it's often hours and days of mundane, boring stuff interspersed with moments of danger and heartbreak. In an age where the police stories that get the most attention are the most sensational, or are highlighting the police / public divide, we often don't get a true picture of what goes on all day, every day.

Not that the media shouldn't be talking about the big, crazy police stories, or shouldn't be devoting more attention to problems with racial profiling or use of force issues. But it's important for people to realize that they are doing more than sitting back in the shadows waiting for an opportunity to unfairly tase someone.

And if the Sheriff's Calls column can help people realize that, and do it in a unique and interesting way that people will actually want to read, then more power to them.