Ride-alongs present complex legal, ethical challenges for student reporters

Dressed in grubby tatters of clothing with an unshaven face and disheveled hair, Bobby Longoria stood inconspicuously about 10 feet away from an undercover police officer in North Austin, Texas.

Longoria observed as a man approached the officer, who was waving a white towel and posing as a drug dealer, and handed him a wad of cash in exchange for rocks of crack cocaine. Within seconds, the tactical operations unit of the Austin Police Department emerged from the undercover vans stationed just out of sight to make the arrest.

Most student journalists who cover the police beat for campus media don’t witness these kind of undercover operations with a front row seat, but Longoria, a reporter for the University of Texas’ Daily Texan, said that was the key to getting an exceptional article out of the experience.

”I didn’t just want to sit in a police car,” he said. ”The crack sting operation was very personal and gritty and dirty. It showed some of the dirtiness of Austin that not a lot of people knew.”

When Longoria first requested a police ride-along with the APD, he was told that he would be accompanying an officer on his nightly rounds.

After requesting a more engaging opportunity, the department gave Longoria the option to tag along with Metro Tactical Operations, a specific unit within the APD that does reverse sting busts, operations where the officers pose as drug dealers instead of buyers.

”I was extremely surprised [at] how much access they gave me. In order to get the access to what I got, you really have to be persistent with them and get the most interesting ride-along,” Longoria said. ”You get to understand the system much more, and it can definitely provide you with one of your most powerful articles.”

The undercover operation Longoria witnessed led to what he described as being an even more thorough and engaging investigative follow-up piece to his initial article.

After probing an officer, Longoria discovered that the APD has its own chemistry lab that it used more than a decade ago to synthesize its own crack cocaine to use in sting operations. It was then that Longoria began to explore the ethics of police departments breaking the law to be able to enforce the law.

”It was a very powerful article,” he said.

Despite the fact that Longoria did not go with the APD on any other sting operations after his article was published, he still urges student journalists to do police ride-alongs as a means of gaining a better understanding of police officers in a human capacity. But he stresses the importance of finding a creative angle.

”Definitely pursue a ride-along, but definitely try your best not to simply ride in a car,” he said. ”Riding in a car can be very boring.”

Gaining Insight

Even for journalists who do a traditional ride-along in a squad car, securing an insider’s view of the police department and its operations is still essential in developing more thorough stories.

”Anytime you immerse yourself in a profession or a culture that you’re going to be covering, I think it’s always good because you get to see at least a snapshot,” said Ruben Rosario, a member of Criminal Justice Journalists. ”I don’t think you can adequately cover anything unless you make yourself familiar with how people do their jobs.”

Criminal Justice Journalists is a national organization dedicated to helping primarily entry-level criminal justice beat reporters improve the quality, accuracy and depth of their news reporting on crime and law enforcement. Founded in 1997, the organization is composed of professionals who have covered the crime field for numerous years.

Lexie Krell, editor-in-chief of The Daily at the University of Washington, said that participating in police ride-alongs can help in breaking down barriers when it comes to officer-student relationships.

”I think some of the best stories come from it because that’s where people start talking about the issues that really affect them, and that’s where you start finding that common ground that makes for the stories that are really important to be told,” Krell said.

As a former crime beat reporter, Krell said she established a relationship with the police department through other stories she’d written, and that they approached her about the possibility of participating in their ride-along program.

For Krell, the most useful insights did not necessarily come from the events that took place during the ride-along.

”What really helps the most in gaining that understanding of what they do, for me, has been the conversations,” she said. ”They [the officers] are still a resource for me to talk to today. Now they’re a little more comfortable talking with me because they know I’ve taken that extra time to complete ride-alongs.”

Along with providing insight for the journalist, ride-along programs can be beneficial for the participating police department as well because they give officers the opportunity to bring attention to issues the student body should be aware of.

”We are part of the university, and being a part of this community, we are obligated to provide to our constituents those services,” said Commander Jerome Solomon of the University of Washington police department.

”With a police ride-along, a person can kind of get the full spectrum of what the police department does. There is always potential risk involved, but we see it as a service to the community.”

Veneza Aguinaga, a senior officer at the Austin Police Department, said the insight provided into the daily efforts of even a single police officer is beneficial not only to the newspaper, but the college and community at large.

”It keeps students, staff and everyone else informed as to what’s occurring, what some of the dangers are, what possible solutions are, as well as makes them more aware of specific issues,” she said. ”[The community] needs to be aware of the things that are happening within the university community at all times. I think, in general, everybody should pursue a police ride-along.”

However, since ride-alongs typically have to be requested weeks — sometimes months — in advance, police departments have time to prepare their most professional police officers and use the ride-along as an opportunity to put the best face possible on the police department.

David Krajicek, a longtime crime journalist and co-founder of Criminal Justice Journalists, said this can be a handicap to the accompanying reporter, and cautions student journalists to view ride-alongs as simply an introductory snapshot of the police profession.

”You typically get a fairly rarefied look at cops selected by their bosses because they are personable,” Krajicek said. ”It is impossible to find a great deal of depth in these ride-along programs. They are purely anecdotal for your stories.”

Krell stresses that journalists must act and report responsibly when reporting from a ride-along, but such an obligation to the police department should not outweigh a student’s responsibility as a journalist.

”There is a balance between respecting that and understanding your duty as a journalist,” Krell said. ”Just because maybe they don’t want you to report on something that happened during the ride-along, doesn’t mean you won’t. You still have a duty, but especially with a crime story, that line can be difficult to find.”

Legal Boundaries

Maintaining a citizen’s right to privacy can become an issue that blurs the legal line for college journalists on ride-alongs–and one journalists should be keenly aware of.

The Supreme Court ruled in the 1999 case Wilson v. Layne that news organizations and reporters can be held liable for violating the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures if they accompany law enforcement officers into a private home or onto private property, regardless of whether the officers give their permission.

Writing for the unanimous court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that the Fourth Amendment ”embodies centuries-old principles of respect for the privacy of the home.” The court held that allowing news media into such a private space without consent is unconstitutional, effectively expanding upon a previously underdeveloped section of the law.

”Ride-alongs are problematic in many ways, because once you leave the public streets and follow the police onto private property, there’s always a possibility that the journalist can be held responsible for anything that happens,” said Hugh Stevens, a lawyer specializing in First Amendment and media issues at Everett, Gaskins, Hancock & Stevens LLP in North Carolina. ”Basically, what the Court ruled in this case is that police don’t have the authority to waive the constitutional rights of the people’s homes or businesses they’re entering into.”

Because citizens often don’t distinguish between who is a police officer and who isn’t, Stevens said the best way for journalists to protect themselves is by staying out of private places during a ride-along. The police officers may have a search warrant or the legal right to enter private property, but such rights are not automatically conferred upon the accompanying journalist, according to the Supreme Court.

”The fact that the police give [their] permission does not clothe the journalist with any kind of immunity,” Stevens said. ”The law basically says that if the person or persons actually in charge of the premises consents, then you are probably OK. But in many circumstances, determining who has the authority is extremely problematic.”

Mike Hiestand, an attorney for the Student Press Law Center, said that beyond the Supreme Court’s ruling in Layne, journalists should understand that privacy boundaries must be respected.

Additionally, Hiestand said it is imperative for student journalists to commit themselves to the best ethical practices while participating in a ride-along, especially regarding on-and off-the-record commentary.

One of the best ways to avoid controversial ethical calls is to establish a clear understanding with the police about what will and will not be on the record prior to the ride-along. Talking to the officer before the ride-along and expressing the desire to go on the record as much as possible will lessen the likelihood of confusion, Hiestand said.

”It is important to make sure boundaries aren’t crossed in terms of if the police want to talk with you off the record about certain things,” he said.

”Once they see you as a confident, credible reporter who is looking to convey important and newsworthy information accurately, you will get the benefits of such an extended opportunity to get to know one another.”

Reporting the Truth

When Shannon McDonald, then a student journalist at Temple University, went on a ride-along with Philadelphia’s 22nd police district in January 2009, she quickly found that her ethical struggle would come not from whether to report on secret operations or citizens’ privacy, but from the behavior of the officers themselves.

McDonald, who was in a class called Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab that assigns students to neighborhoods around Philadelphia, said she went into the ride-along with hopes of gathering statistics about the neighborhood and viewing it through the eyes of the police officer.

While McDonald did gain insight about how the officer sees the neighborhood he patrols, it wasn’t quite the insight she expected.

The ride-along took a different turn rather quickly, she said, as the officer began using derogatory language in reference to the residents–including racial slurs.

”He, quite frankly, didn’t have a lot of nice things to say about the neighborhood and the people who lived there,” McDonald said.

”But I spent a few hours in one car with one cop in one district. So it was a portrayal of what he sees, but certainly not what happens in Philadelphia every day.”

After her article was published on the MURL website, McDonald endured vicious backlash from the community and police department, especially after the officer who was the subject of her article was temporarily fired.

”For me, this was a crash course in everything that could potentially go wrong,” McDonald said. ”My goal was just to put out there that this is the experience I had on this ride-along. It wasn’t a cop chasing down a criminal, it was just a very average, honest view of what this officer does on a daily basis.”

Despite the ensuing hostility, McDonald never doubted that she made the right choice as a journalist and still feels that ride-alongs are a valuable experience for every student journalist.

”If I had made the decision to leave out those comments and to leave out his attitude, it would have been an almost fictitious story,” she said.

”In my situation, to have not reported that wouldn’t have been journalism.”

By Sommer Ingram, SPLC staff writer