What's wrong with the police blotter

Here’s the answer to a question that, to my knowledge, nobody has asked: Why doesn’t the Heights Observer run police blotter items?

The police blotter is a series of one- or two-sentence media reports on arrests and other activities by local police. When reported in the news, a blotter item looks like this:

Theft: An Elm Street man reported his 2001 Chrysler broken into sometime between 6 p.m., Aug. 20, and 8 a.m., Aug. 21. His iPod and connector were taken along with his wallet containing, among other things, his driver’s license and a debit card. The man had left his car unlocked.

Police reports are public documents and publishing them has been standard practice by the media for decades. I’m aware of three sources that publish police blotter items from our community: The Sun Press, The Plain Dealer (which reprints selected Sun Press items), and sporadically, Patch.com.

The Heights Observer aspires to being more than a source of news. It’s not for profit and community owned, and is intended to be a community-building tool. It exists to enable local people and institutions to share their thoughts and ideas for the community in an open forum. It aspires to help one hand know what the other is doing--with the possibility that they may choose to work together.

Blotter items don't serve this purpose:

They don’t provide an accurate picture. Published blotter reports do not actually list every police action that takes place. Instead, they are selective, providing a sample of what a reporter finds to be of interest, often highlighting the worst and the weirdest.

They don't tell the whole story. Blotter items don’t follow a case through to provide the outcome or context. Here’s how Jesus’ resurrection would be covered in the police blotter:

Flash mob: A man rode a donkey into the city today, creating a disturbance as people put coats and tree branches in his path. Centurions dispersed the crowd and told him to move on.

They are misleading and demoralizing. If blotter reports were comprehensive, contained follow-through, and were accompanied by meaningful data on the location and nature of all police activity, they would provide a meaningful public service.

Instead, botter items treat all police calls equally. They highlight incidents that make us feel bad about the community, and give the wrong impression to people outside our boundaries.

This doesn't mean public safety information isn't important. If there's a crime wave at Cain Park, or if a resident is brutally assaulted in front of his home, people need to know about it. There may be ways to provide more meaningful information about the work our police force does day after day.

I recently attended a meeting involving Cleveland Heights residents and city officials in which this very issue was discussed. The day we figure it out, the Observer will gladly pass along the information.

To express your opinion privately, e-mail Bob Rosenbaum at bob@therosenbaums.net. To express your opinion as a letter to the editor, register at the Observer Member Center (http://heightsobserver.org/members) and click on “Submit New Story” to contribute your letter.

Bob Rosenbaum, chairman of the Observer's editorial advisory committee and FutureHeights board member, writes this column to provide transparency and understanding about the Observer.

Bob Rosenbaum

Bob Rosenbaum is a Cleveland Heights resident and chairman of the FutureHeights Observer committee.

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Volume 4, Issue 9, Posted 11:56 AM, 09.01.2011