Many of us who used to cover crime in Flint are trying to wrap our heads around a series of crimes, five of them murders, that went unconnected for many, many weeks. With the arrest of an Israeli citizen in Atlanta for this series of crimes, it is time to ask some hard questions.
This series of crimes, and there were many more than just the homicides, began in May, but it wasn't until a couple weeks ago that two and two added to four.
There was a time that the Flint Journal sent reporters to the police station every day, two and three times a day, to check on crimes. Not sure if that is still going on, but trust me that a series of five men being murdered, all by the same method, in a short period of time would have created a media firestorm much earlier than this one.
I am far from the newsroom, I don't know if those two and three times a day visits are still being made to the detective bureau at the police station. The reporters who are there are good, competent folks, but again, I don't know how much time they have to dedicate to a beat, or even if there are still beats.
Back in the day, the day police reporter would make an early visit to the detective bureau (7 a.m.) and check on overnight activities and go through police reports for serious activities or accidents over night.
The night cop reporter would stop back at the police department about 5 p.m. and repeat the process for the dayside. Several times during the day and evening calls would be made to the police department to check on current investigations and to see what is going on.
And the police scanner was on in the newsroom and in our cars all the time monitoring police and fire radio traffic. Often to the irritation of the non-police reporters and editors in the newsroom.
There were nights when something would happen as I was leaving at 11 p.m. and I would stay many hours into the night. A few times I would still be there at 5 a.m. when editors began showing up for work the next day.
Editors demanded that crimes be covered like a blanket. That began to erode even during my last years at the Journal, but there was still a commitment to aggressively cover crimes.
I have no idea if crime coverage is still heavily emphasized. I do know there are far fewer reporters to do the job of gathering news than when I was there. Whether this helped lead to a lack of oversight and the missed signals of these crimes is only speculation.
But I do know this, if we had noticed even two men killed in a short time by the same method, someone would have been asking questions. By the time it got to three, four and five men, we would have been running daily and Sunday stories on the "trend." We loved trend stories back in the day.
There is no question I spent many, many hours hanging around the police station, developing relationships with all the detectives and I had the time and freedom to follow stories. That, I am sure, is different today.
Many times, reporters would notice crime trends from one community to the other and we became the conduit that put together similar crimes from those communities.
A running list of traffic accident victims and homicide victims was kept religiously in a computer file at the paper. Those lists were critical to tracking and discovering disturbing crime trends in the area. Those of us who covered crime used to hate the year end wrap up stories we were required to do on each and every murder that occurred.
The old beat method allowed reporters the time and space to develop sources. To be clear, I don't know what happened in this case, but the days of the local television and newspaper media leading the way in coverage is apparently gone.
With the newspaper only printing three days a week, maybe that has had an effect on the daily coverage of the police department. I just don't know. Much of the early online coverage of the arrest was simply links to other news outlets. That would not have been allowed in the "old days."
The reporters now working on the story are doing a good job, I have no argument with that.
Also, the Flint Police Department has taken a heavy hit due to budget considerations. I don't know the status of the homicide bureau and what effect that had on the failure to connect the dots for so long. But it is a question that needs to be asked.
Sorry, just lots of questions and few answers today. It just appears that the watchdogs, public and private, were asleep.