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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Media Crosshairs and Wars of Words

I made a mistake in affixing a complaint about a journalist to a singular incident. Because of this error, the message was lost in translation and was interpreted as an attack on journalists who file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The latter is not the case, and I believe that my transparency on behalf of my police department as well as my very public views on holding police officers accountable speak to this truth.

Perhaps that mindset is the catalyst for the frustration I feel with any reporter who, rather than reporting, files FOIA requests by the dozen. Some of the requests leave me scratching my head, and I wonder what story will arise out of the seemingly innocuous information being collected. These voluminous requests have left me to deduct that it's a fishing expedition and the reporter is looking for something (anything) to discredit our agency and our officers. My department has enjoyed a longstanding relationship with our local newspaper, and I can honestly say that the reporters I've worked with are some of the most talented and competent I've had the pleasure of working with so the recent distrust is new to me.

The Freedom of Information Act is justly in place, and since its inception, my department has honored the inquiries into the actions of our officers. Both police officers and journalists subscribe to the "trust but verify" philosophy, so I've never felt opposition to the practice until we experienced a reporter who appears to spend more time filing FOIA requests than reporting.

My department lives in the light, and I have no issue facing the residents and stakeholders of my city and telling them that I made a mistake. I have terminated officers for making mistakes, and I stand firm in my decisions because those who tarnish our badge have no place among the honorable officers who get it right day after day.

Let me be succinct in stating that every officer involved shooting warrants FOIA requests. That’s why it was my mistake to assert any linkage to the obsessive FOIA requests as part of the shooting incident. I'm hanging my head.

Wesley Lowery from the Washington Post was the first to attack me on Twitter, so he's my favorite reporter right now. He was correct in placing me in his crosshairs because I know he genuinely believes that I was venting about a reporter who was verifying information from a shooting. That couldn't be further from the truth.

So my purpose of this post is to seek first to understand and then be understood. I have been a cop my entire adult life, and I don't know what it's like to walk around in a reporter's shoes. The shoes I wear are shiny and match my uniform. My point is that I don’t know what I don’t know. 

If reputable and respected journalists respond and tell me that it is perfectly normal to file FOIA requests for the sake of filing, then I will stand corrected. But if I were in the shoes of a reporter, I think I would spend time keeping my readers informed and I would be vehement in my quest for truth. But in doing so, I would not automatically assume everyone is lying or withholding unless they gave me a reason to believe that. If I were suspicious of coverup or corruption, I would be steadfast in my pursuit to uncover the truth. Again, every shooting incident should meet that level of inquiry but those serious incidents aside, is there room to build trust? Ironically, law enforcement officers and journalists overlap in the fact-finding part of the mission.

Some police actions and the organizations to which they belong have justified this level of scrutiny, so that is not lost on me. But do the transgressions of the few translate into the automatic lack of trust for all? I fear the answer to this question.

With that, I will respond to the inquiries from Mr. Lowery on Twitter (@WesleyLowery) in this venue because I simply cannot communicate meaningfully in 140 characters or less (i.e., I talk too much).

1) Given the current environment, do you think a chief's public targeting of this specific reporter could result in threats/violence for him/her?

I hope not. I didn’t provide a name or a publication and the truth is, I never even considered that. I have a philosophical disagreement with the process by which the reporter reports but I would never instigate or purposefully condone violence. I respect the reporter's humanity and wish no harm.

2) While I think reporters can be strategic in what we request, shouldn't use of deadly force always prompt our scrutiny/requests for info?

Yes. I do. If the actions of a police officer result in force, I believe we should be scrutinized to determine if those actions are lawful. If we are charged with upholding the law, we should follow the law.

3)  I file many FOIAs; not all lead directly to articles. Does that mean I am no longer entitled to public information…?

Of course not. But just like you might say to a police officer, "Do you always have to go to force options?" The answer is no. But I do believe FOIA requests should be strategic and not just a fishing expedition. That is where the disconnect seems to be.

Maybe we just keep the dialogue going in an attempt to see each other up close. I'm a cop and that might make you deduct something about me before having met me. Reporters are being villainized for "fake news, " and a faction of society is adopting that narrative. I'm not one of those people. The media is a crucial component of our society and keeping those in power accountable is important and honorable work.

Let us all keep fighting the good fight even in discourse.


Lex Alexander said...

I'm not a lawyer and am not familiar with Illinois's Freedom of Information Act. But here in North Carolina, where I was a journalist for almost 30 years, the state's open-records law says, among many other good things, that the government isn't entitled to ask why anyone wants a particular record. And it applies to professional journalists and individual citizens alike.

I realize that fulfilling records requests can take time and money. That's an issue for you to take up with your governing body, not with the press/public. Providing records is part of your department's job; it's up to the governing body to ensure that your department is adequately funded for this and every other part of the department's mission.

Finally, you seem to draw a distinction between filing FOIA requests and "reporting." Filing FOIA requests IS reporting. And I've gone on a number of open-records "fishing expeditions," just because my gut said something wasn't right, and they turned into stories. It sounds to me as if the reporter is doing his/her job. Further, with all due respect, if the reporter doesn't tell you how to be a cop, you shouldn't try to tell him/her how to be a reporter.

Heidi Bell said...

First, thank you for understanding one of the places you went wrong in your initial Facebook post. But I think you're kidding yourself to say that people don't know exactly which reporter you're talking about. We all know, and by targeting her with such vehement criticism, you have effectively shut down the great reporting she has done since she joined the paper. Who is going to talk to her now among your subordinates or citizens who revere you? You have just made her job impossible. Do you read this paper? Most of the reporting and writing is terrible. I was so excited when this reporter came along, and I feared that she would soon leave because she is so smart, so dogged, so technically talented. I just didn't think she would be driven out by someone else I admire a great deal. It's not okay for you to target someone from your position of power who, like you, is doing her job and doing it well. There is an essential tension between any government authority and the press. It's supposed to be that way.

Cindy Lou said...

I'm with you Chief Ziman. To Heidi Bell, does this reporter target people and ruin lives?

drbopperthp said...

No - She endeavors to report the truth about cops who are possibly targeting people and ruining lives. In this case, the story that came out proved the cop involved was correct in the action he took, excepting the actions, or inactions which resulted in his one day suspension. The chief's actions and words, created a sinister atmosphere of journalistic suppression and conspiratorial collision to hide the truth. The only reason she's now offering her dishwater weak mea culpa is that she got caught at it and called out beyond the comfy enclaves of Aurora.

Heidi Bell said...

Cindy Lou, I'm sure you're capable of reading the paper and coming to your own conclusions about the reporter. I find it odd that your support depends not on a principle but on a value judgment. Logic tells us that it's unacceptable for people in power to target others with less power who are well within their rights and doing their jobs. Logic tells us that is well within the reporter's rights and part of doing the job well to file FOIA requests.

drhopperthp, just because Chief Ziman got some things wrong in this situation doesn't mean she's not good at her job. Let's try to keep the drama in check and look at the facts--there is quite a bit of evidence to support the conclusion that Chief Ziman is intelligent, thoughtful, and honorable. We all have blind spots, and this is apparently one of hers.

Kristen Ziman said...

Thanks to all of you for commenting. I actually appreciate your making the effort to give an intellectual and pragmatic debate that feeds further conversation rather than name-calling (i.e. “bully”).

I think the message is getting lost and yes, Heidi, this IS my blind-spot. That’s precisely why I wrote this piece — to pose a question in the hopes of gaining a better understanding.

I tried to make my position clear, but I’m not a journalist or a professional writer (just a self-proclaimed hobbyist) so I will be out-verbosed by those in the industry every time. As evidence, I don’t even think “verbosed” is a word.

I need to make it clear that this argument is not about FOIA laws. I know that is what everyone is hanging their argument on but for me, it’s more about how a reporter seeks and finds information. For example, the FOIA requests that come in are voluminous and consist of the Command staff’s expense reports, officer’s gym membership, discipline files (to name a few). Our staff fulfills these requests in accordance with the law so it’s not a question to do otherwise. But all this information that my staff spends time accumulating never amounts to a story. I sat down with this reporter for 2 hours because she wanted a story about my first year as Chief. Once again, no article came from our lengthy conversation. Isn’t that odd? I have never been courted to give an interview that hasn’t amounted to story being written. Please note that I only agreed after several requests from her. I have vetted this with other reporters who concluded that is preposterous.

Everyone keeps calling me a bully and suggests that I am unwilling to provide information about shootings. That is not the case. Ofc. Woolsey was justified in his shooting. The video was not withheld for any other reason than to protect the driver of the vehicle (and because we genuinely didn’t have redaction software until well after the case was closed.) This narrative isn’t about protecting officers. I have no desire to do that because lawful action by our officers is always in question — by our administration and the public.

My question is simply about excessive FOIA requests and why some reporters FOIA for the sake of being able to do so. In the aforementioned examples, why was there no story about our expense accounts being in order? Why was there no story about the officers and their health and wellness? The officer’s discipline records are FOIA’ed every quarter. Where is the story of how APD holds officers accountable and how I have terminated 4 officers under my tenure because they are not worthy of the badge. But these headlines don’t generate “clicks” or interest so I’m kinda answering my own question.

So far, no one as been able to answer my question about excessive filing of FOIA’s and if it’s the norm to file a FOIA for everything under the sun with nothing to prompt it. If this is common practice, tell me so.

I’m operating under the way things have always been done and no reporter has ever filed a FOIA without having reasons to do so. Perhaps I’m just stuck in the old way of doing things so if filing FOIA’s all over the place and hoping that nefarious activity result from it is the new norm, then obviously I need to change my paradigm.

Once again, I appreciate the dissent. I genuinely respect journalists so I hope that doesn’t get lost in all of this noise. I respect so many reporters and put them on pedestals.

Onward and upward,

drbopperthp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
drbopperthp said...

Heidi Bell - "Chief Ziman is intelligent, thoughtful, and honorable. We all have blind spots, and this is apparently one of hers".

The Chief's conduct in this matter puts the lie to all three of your assertions. And as far as her having a blind spot - well it appears her vision is pretty cloudy in the area of the right of the public to know and the right of the press to do their job. Lady Justice is depicted wearing a blindfold that represents impartiality. An impartiality that is the ideal, in the application of the idea of the notion of justice itself. The idea that the law and the justice it seeks to achieve should be applied without regard to wealth, power, or another status. Underneath that blindfold, she may have a few blind spots. That's why, in fact, she wears it. I would suggest to the Chief that she secure one of like kind and purpose ASAP.

David Couper said...

Leadership is often suffering the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." You have stated your intentions here. Apologized for any error. No super-defensiveness, or bunkering-in. Good job. Press on.

Unknown said...


What's the purpose of your word soup/verbal diarrhea, other than to try to sound smart and edgy?

We should be thankful there's a police chief like Chief Ziman who is willing to listen and discuss this issue in a public forum. She's definitely one of the best--and I say this as someone who doesn't live in IL nor been to Aurora. But I've followed this blog and read about the shooting, and I've never gotten the impression that she's doing what you've unfairly accused her of. Put more thought and effort into making the world a better place rather than disparaging a good person in a difficult job.

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