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Understanding the Police Beat


An audio/visual presentation of how to cover the police beat for a newspaper.

An audio/visual presentation of how to cover the police beat for a newspaper.

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  • My name is Professor Jennifer Cox. I designed this presentation to help you learn the ins and outs of covering a police beat for a newspaper. During this presentation, you will learn some important terms, tips, and other essentials to help you begin covering the police beat.
  • When beginning a police beat, the first thing you should do is meet the Public Information Officers for all of the agencies that you will be covering, including the police, sheriff’s office, fire department and emergency management center.Schedule tours of each facility so that you will be familiar with the layout of each office in the event of an emergency. This will also help you to meet other people working in each department who could be helpful to you down the line.If possible, schedule a ride along with officers so that you can see what a typical day is like for them. This could help advance your knowledge of the beat, including the terminology and the legal system in general.Police officers often speak in codes, so it is crucial that you get to know which codes apply in emergency situations. Officers often relay these codes to each other over police scanners, which are available in most newsrooms. It is important to be able to recognize an emergency code quickly so that you can react immediately.Make a list of important contacts, including their cell phone numbers and pager numbers so that you are able to contact the appropriate person quickly. During nights and weekends, officers will often take shifts manning the phones, so it is important to get a schedule of who is on duty at different times.Before beginning a day on the police beat, always make sure your car is filled with gas. You never know where an emergency will occur, and it is always best to be prepared to get to the scene quickly with no interruptions.
  • Reporters new to the police beat can often misuse charges with similar themes, particularly with regard to killings and home invasions. According to the AP Style Book, burglary involves entering a building and remaining unlawfully with the intention of committing a crime. The perpetrator doesn’t necessarily have to “break in” to a building to be charged with burglary. It can include a person taking property that is not theirs from work or another person’s home.Larceny is the wrongful taking of property. It can be used interchangeably with “theft” and “stealing.”Theft is a form of larceny that does not involve threat, violence or plundering.Finally, robbery is the use of violence to plunder or rifle. A robbery can occur even if another person is not present. For instance, one can rob a bank or a home by breaking in.
  • Similarly, words involving killing are often misused.Homicide is the legal term for slaying or killing.Murder is constituted as malicious, premeditated homicide. It is important to note that you cannot classify a homicide as a “murder” unless officials confirm the crime was premeditated. Some newsrooms prefer that you not use the term until a criminal is convicted of the crime.Although it sounds more severe, manslaughter is homicide without malice or premeditation. Manslaughter is often used to describe an accidental homicide, such as one prompted by driving under the influence.
  • Knowing which words apply to which departments is also crucial. Anyone from the police department is a police officer; those from the sheriff’s office are deputies and highway patrol officers are troopers. For specific titles, such as Captain or Lieutenant, see military titles in your AP style book. However, when in doubt, the term officers is always acceptable for any member of law enforcement.
  • There are several types of stories that reporters should write while on the police beat. The most obvious is breaking news, which usually includes crime, fires or emergencies. These stories are often found by listening to the police scanner or through routine check-ins with public information officers.Enterprise, or feature, stories often include profiles of people, tips on crime prevention or notable trends in crime or emergencies. For instance, a police reporter will often do stories about rises in car burglaries around Christmas time or about heightened DUI enforcement on New Year’s Eve.Lastly, organizational news can provide fodder for stories. This might include the promotion of an official in a department or officials breaking rules within the department. For instance, reporters will often write about officers who are being investigated for using improper tactics during arrests.
  • Make sure that you understand what information is lawfully available to you and what is not. In the state of Florida, you have the right to view or copy booking sheets and police reports, which list criminals’ identifying information and the charges against him or her along with a detailed account of what happened. You can also access and publish mug shots of those arrested.Additionally, you have the right to access any public forum, including parks, streets, and sidewalks.However, there are some places that reporters cannot go without permission, including private property, such as jails, schools and airport terminals. You also do not have the right to view or publish redacted information, which often includes the names of minors, social security numbers, and certain details of a crime that might be under investigation.
  • When working a police beat, your safety should be your top priority. The best way to keep yourself safe when in an emergency situation is to listen to what officers tell you. Don’t try to sneak into unauthorized locations or go behind protective barriers while reporting a story. Also, keep in touch with your editors so that someone knows where you are at all times. Abide by the law, and don’t do anything to jeopardize yourself or those around you. Don’t speed, don’t enter crime scenes without permission, and don’t harass sources to get a story.Make sure that you wear appropriate clothing when covering a police shift. If you are reporting on a brush fire, it would not be fitting for you to wear a suit, as it will be difficult for you to get around and your clothing will get dirty. Comfortable, yet appropriate, clothing can help you when reporting a difficult story.Above all, make good decisions. Use your common sense when reporting a story, and don’t put yourself in danger for the sake of a story.
  • When you get your story adequately reported, make sure you publish with speed. Get the initial facts confirmed by officers quickly so that you can post emergency information online immediately for readers. Do not publish any details of a story without some concrete publication, as you do not want to create an unnecessary panic.Post any changes or updates to your story remotely via Twitter or a blog. Many readers now follow breaking news through social networking sites, and you should do what you can to reach them as soon as possible.Keep in touch with your editors and sources regarding changes in the story. Also, look for any details that aren’t essential to the breaking story but that might add to a second-day story about the event you are covering.
  • I hope you have found this presentation of Understanding the Police Beat to be informative. Best of luck on the beat!


  • 1. Understanding the Police Beat
    By Jennifer Brannock Cox
  • 2. Beginning the Beat
    Meet the PIO
    Tour the facility
    Do a “ride along”
    Familiarize yourself with police scanner and codes
    Make a list of contacts, including cell phones and pagers
    Always keep your car filled with gas
  • 3. Understanding Terminology
    Burglary –
    “entering a building and remaining unlawfully with the intention of committing a crime.”
    Larceny –
    “the wrongful taking of property.”
    Theft –
    “larceny that did not involve threat, violence or plundering.”
    Robbery –
    “the use of violence to plunder or rifle.”
    May or may not involve another person
  • 4. Understanding Terminology
    Homicide –
    “legal term for slaying or killing.”
    Murder –
    “malicious, premeditated homicide.”
    Do not write that a victim was “murdered” unless officials confirm the killing was premeditated
    Manslaughter –
    “homicide without malice or premeditation.”
  • 5. Understanding Terminology
    Police Department – police
    Sheriff’s Office – deputies
    Highway Patrol – troopers
    Others – see “military titles” in AP Style
    All – officers
  • 6. Types of Stories
    Breaking news
    Enterprise stories
    Crime prevention and tips
    Organizational news
    Officials breaking rules
  • 7. Getting Access
    You have the right to:
    View/copy booking sheets
    View/copy police reports
    Publish mug shots
    Any public forum
    Without permission, you do not have a right to:
    Private property, including jails, schools and points beyond airport security
    Redacted information
    Names of minors, social security numbers, some items under investigation
  • 8. Safety
    Listen to officers
    Keep in touch with editors
    Abide by the law
    Wear appropriate clothing
    Make good decisions
  • 9. Breaking News Online
    Get the initial facts confirmed, posted quickly
    Post changes remotely via Twitter or blog
    • Keep in touch with sources, editors
    • 10. Look for details to add to second-day story
  • Understanding the Police Beat
    By Jennifer Brannock Cox