Payne: "We hope to make the public understand the very bizarre nuances that officers deal with on a daily basis."
Police incident reports have long been sources of public information and reality-based entertainment. Way before the advent of shows like Cops, local police blotters, often published in suburban and small-town weeklies, provided citizens with unvarnished information about their community, along with a little gossip and some laughter over the drunken misfortune of a well-known neighbor.
But with the advent of social media, Madison Police Department public information officer Joel DeSpain, along with a handful of colleagues, has been exploring new possibilities for distributing incident reports online. The result is one of the city website's most popular sections, with attention from the public and media focusing as often on the writing of the reports as the incidents themselves.
With over two decades of journalism experience, former WISC-TV reporter DeSpain became the principal author of the online incident reports four years ago when the public information officer position became civilianized. Prior to DeSpain's arrival, when the position was filled by actual officers, most reports were laden with a structured police rhetoric that made them inaccessible to the average reader.
"When I read police incident reports in the past, I remember a lot of them were written with words that officers learned in the academy, very structured and formal," says DeSpain. "One of the things I try to do now is take a lot of that language out and present it more clearly."
DeSpain primarily views the reports as a means to provide the public with helpful and important information.
"People are definitely interested in what's going on in the city," says DeSpain. "So I see the police incident reports as a way to not only inform people about what is happening in their community, but also to inform them about what they can do to keep safe from any trends we are seeing in criminal activity."
To obtain the necessary information to color in the reports' details, DeSpain spends the majority of each day on teleconference briefings with detectives stationed around the city and scouring countless 911 call logs and booking sheets for crimes relevant to the community at large. The task is daunting, as budget restrictions mean the brunt of the work falls on DeSpain's shoulders, as has the responsibility of deciding what crimes are most relevant to the public.
"Its kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack, because the source sheets themselves only have a brief description of the crime," says DeSpain. "So when I'm looking through these various reports and going to briefings, I'm always looking for key items of when everyday citizens have been victimized somehow. I always encourage the (Officer In Charge) to inform me if we have muggings or something where an innocent victim has been attacked or been sexually assaulted, because I put those on top of the heap as I feel they should go out right away."
When all the information is gathered, DeSpain, along with the OICs, writes short, detailed descriptions of relevant crimes and posts them to the police department website. Similar to blogging, there is no editorial process, and each writer is able to use his own discretion. For higher profile cases such as homicides and sexual assaults, the information is filtered through case detectives and the district captains to ensure accuracy. But for "lesser crimes," each incident report writer is given a degree of leeway with regards to content.
"We are very responsible and take incident reporting very seriously," says DeSpain. "But I think in Madison people know that life gets serious enough that sometimes you can have fun with it and entertain people by detailing some of the bizarre things that have happened in the city."
In the last year, many of the more humorous reports have come from Officer Howard Payne, who has served in a supporting role at the public information office since 1999. Employing a unique voice that teeters between objective and subjective reporting, Payne's writing has struck a chord with audiences around Madison, receiving local and national attention for his depiction of less-than-noble activities.
This sample from one of his reports demonstrates Payne's humor and knack for using exclamation points:
It should be noted that vehicular traffic is only allowed on State Street (absent a permit) for specified reasons or emergency personnel. Kristan was described as being visibly upset, slamming his hands on his vehicle, and making statements reference the admonition by police to being equal with that of the feces of male steer!
"The way that I would characterize my reports is that I try and come up with a creative way to unveil an idea about what's going on in the community, as it relates to an incident or an arrest," says Payne. "And my rationale for doing so is that far too often I think matters of importance go without notice, and that to me is a travesty that the public doesn't have the ability to pick up on things they need to pick up on. So I try and make it noticeable."
Payne has also been experimenting with what he refers to as an "educational component" to his reports, often ending with a brief moral that is unusual to incident reporting.
"When I write a release, the educational component is extremely important to me," says Payne. "I try not to get caught up in the personal nature of who the release might be about. Moreover, I try and focus in on the behavior that made the release worth writing in the first place, with the hope that at the end of the day, I can keep someone from making the same mistake."
Whether providing the city with information or entertainment, the reports aid in the humanization and understanding of a police force many misunderstand or tend to fear.
"I think depending on where you come from, there's always been a natural fear of police," says DeSpain. "And I think when people interact particularly with the officers here in Madison, they'll see that they're just like anybody else. So I think to connect people with their police by using social media is an important thing. It allows people to get to know us better."
Agreeing with the sentiment, Payne adds: "We hope to make the public understand the very bizarre nuances that officers deal with on a daily basis. This is not a job or career where things are commonplace, where things are run-of-the-mill. There are very bizarre situations sometimes and officers do their best to make the appropriate decisions in the face of these events."
While notable for its innovations, DeSpain admits that the current system of incident reporting is far from perfect.
"We live in a time in Madison where I think people are a little more on edge than they were when I grew up here," he says. "But because of the lack of resources, a lot of what happens in this city goes unreported. We put out a lot of information, more than many other departments. But there's not enough bodies or time to report on everything that comes through."
In the face of modest resources, DeSpain remains hopeful for a day when the police incident report site will be more than just a place for written information. Adding a visual component is just one of the many ideas under consideration, which could take the form of photos accompanying text and even the possibility of video chats with the Chief Noble Wray.