Blotter blackout! Why you are getting almost no neighborhood crime news this week

Readers looking for neighborhood crime news are out in the cold this week thanks to a citywide move to shut community reporters out of police station houses where they have been logging crime reports for decades.

The blotter blackout comes as a result of an order instructing commanding officers at each of the city’s 77 precincts to refer requests to view complaint reports, which are the basis of the police blotter that has been a centerpiece of this newspaper for more than 30 years, to the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, according to DNA Info, a news website. The police department’s spokesman denied that anything has changed but, when asked to explain why reporters from this paper were turned away from a half-dozen cops shops this week by officers saying access to the public records was no longer allowed, he said that the long-standing practice raised concerns that confidential information about victims and witnesses could be exposed.

“There’s no change in policy, but neighborhood reporters can go through DCPI and establish or renew their relationships with precincts,” said John McCarthy. “The goal is to provide as much information as possible and ensure that policies are followed and that victims’ names, witnesses’ names, and other confidential information are protected.”

Rank-and-file officers at Brooklyn station houses this week told reporters to route their requests for neighborhood crime reports through the public information office, but calls there were met with suggestions to look at CompStat, monthly online crime statistics that contain no details about the circumstances of specific crimes, or to file Freedom of Information Law requests, which can take months to bear fruit — if the department responds to them at all. The office’s head of public information said the latter route was the solution.“There is a process for complaint reports and that is dealt with by our FOIL department,” said deputy chief Kim Royster.

A longtime reader and Fort Greene community leader said he does not take the loss of the police blotters lightly.

“We have a lot of seniors in my neighborhood who own brownstones like I do who have a lot of concern about going out at night,” said Charles Dubose, a Community Board 2 member. “I read [the blotters] to know what is happening in Fort Greene and the areas around Fort Greene so I can tell them what specific places to be careful in.”

Journalists slammed the blackout, with the New York Press Club calling it “another example of blatant hostility by NYPD toward locally-based media outlets” in an open letter to outgoing police chief Ray Kelly. But a prominent civil libertarian said he was confident that it would end in January, when Bill Bratton takes over at One Police Plaza.

“I think this problem is going to get resolved in two weeks,” said Chris Dunn, a director at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “When the Bratton administration comes in they will take a very different approach.”

Public Advocate and mayor-elect Bill DeBlasio called out the police department for its lack of transparency in April, citing its record of responding to just a third of all Freedom of Information requests.

Dunn said that, in the few weeks before DeBlasio takes office, there is no reason that protecting privacy and providing media access should be mutually exclusive.

“It seems clear that they could both protect confidential information and make available crime information,” he said.

It is this paper’s policy not to publish names of victims, witnesses, or suspects, in its weekly police blotter.Not every station house froze reporters out, though. Carroll Gardens’ 76 Precinct dictated its crime reports over the phone, as it does each week. And the 68 Precinct in Bay Ridge said it would reopen its doors to journalists for a weekly reading of complaint forms starting Dec. 11, after press time, a deviation from its previous practice of allowing newshounds to scan the records themselves.But if the current prohibition holds at other precincts, the police’s public information office will likely find itself inundated with records requests. Already, the calls are beginning to wear on cops there.

“I am getting so sick of this,” chief Royster said, shortly before hanging up on an editor a second time.

Nathan Tempey is a Deputy Editor at the Community Newspaper Group. Reach him at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-4504. Follow him at twitter.com/nathantempey.