Street Reporting 101: How to Develop Police Sources

By Brad Hamilton March 13th, 2015

The first time I met my best police source—the man who would become my Deep Throat—I was actually writing a profile on someone else.

It was a feature for the New York Post about a kindly grandmother who happened to be an NYPD Special Victims Unit ace with a knack for getting abused kids to open up to her, and we’d come to a Lower East Side playground to get her photo amid a happy scene of school children on a jungle gym. But before we left her office, she asked if her colleague, another SVU detective, could come along. The man walked with us without speaking a word, then hung back as our lensman snapped away.

“I’ve had some good cases too,” he suddenly offered.

“Yeah?” I said.

“The rapist who targeted those women as they walked into their apartment buildings. Remember that one?”

“Last year, right?”

“That was mine,” he said. “Got a lot of media when we locked up the perp. I’ve had a few like that. Made more than a thousand arrests in my career.”

I turned to him and smiled. “I’d love to hear more.” I introduced myself, handed him my card, and got his cell number. “I’ll call you.”

It was the start of a beautiful relationship.

The source I met that day turned out to be as good as advertised—and as savvy as they come when thinking about the media’s influence on criminal matters. His gleeful enthusiasm, story-telling flair, and status in the NYPD made him a coveted contact. And he saw me as a way to raise awareness for the cases he investigated. For nearly a decade, he acted as my own personal conduit to sensitive police information, helping me secure an enviable string of front-page stories.

I didn’t bring down a president, as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein did with the help of FBI Associate Director Mark Felt—better known as Deep Throat—but many of my best scoops came straight from this source. They included revelations about Peter Braunstein, the demented writer who posed as a firefighter and sexually tormented his co-worker, prompting a nationwide manhunt, and the shocking tale of two NYPD cops in the East Village who allegedly raped a drunken women after being sent to help her get home safely.

The benefits of working with police

With these type of stories, it’s hard to imagine a better source than the well-informed cop. A high-ranking official in law enforcement, whether working for city or state police or a federal agency, could kick-start your career. If you can convince the source to deal with you exclusively, that arrangement paves the way for any number of scoops. These sources could steer you to newsworthy cases or issues affecting their department. They are often up to speed on internal matters, political developments within their ranks, and problems in other agencies. Since the best police officers make it their business to learn as much about their communities as they can, their help covers an incredibly wide scope.

Fortunately, just about any reporter can cultivate cop sources, and those interested in legal or law-enforcement issues should definitely do so. There’s no excuse not to try.

Sometimes the best way to get started is to report a favorable police story, such as a profile of a noteworthy officer or an account of a successful bust. You don’t necessarily have to know anyone involved; if the spin is positive, officials might be inclined to provide the sources and information you need.

The chance encounter that led me to my Deep Throat resulted from a feature I wanted to write on the “secret weapons” of the NYPD: cops with accomplished careers but no public recognition. I didn’t know any of these secret weapons, so I called NYPD spokesman Paul Browne and told him my idea. He responded by lining up interviews with several unheralded stars on the force: a sharpshooter, a helicopter pilot, a scuba diver, and that sweet grandmother, Sandy Rubino, one of the city’s top sex-crimes investigators. The story was a hit.

Someone at the New York Stock Exchange saw the piece and invited the entire group of 10 cops and their families to ring the closing bell on Wall Street on June 10, 2005. An exchange official made a little speech, and we were each handed heavy brass medallions engraved with a bull goring a bear to commemorate the event. The officers were understandably proud.

I called them all later to thank them and ask how they were doing. I also inquired about any new or interesting cases they might be working. A few shared; others did not. Those who did became regular sources, providing information and introductions to additional police sources. A couple still give me tips.

My story might not have materialized without a previous piece I wrote, an exclusive about an elaborate spying program launched by commissioner Ray Kelly. It was important because it convinced Browne I was a reporter he could rely on. The tip came from a cop I’d known since the early ’90s who called out of the blue and asked, “Do you know Kelly at all?”

“A bit,” I said. “He wrote me a nice note when he left for Customs after his first term as commissioner.”

“I wonder if you can’t get in to see him,” my source said. “There’s something interesting going on.” He explained that Kelly, in the wake of 9/11, had concluded the FBI couldn’t be trusted to keep the city safe, so he set up his own intelligence network to fight terrorism, which included hiring a staff to monitor chatter and sending detectives overseas.

I called Browne to ask if I could get an interview with the commissioner, and he agreed. Kelly, to my delight, remembered me and was quite candid, revealing details of his anti-terror program and boldly blasting the FBI for not sharing information or cooperating with the NYPD.

Getting access

Writing positive stories is not the only way to make friends in law enforcement, but it’s a smart strategy if you’re just getting started.

An underling of Browne’s in the press office once revealed something to me a few days after being upset by a negative piece on the NYPD written by former Daily News reporter Alison Gendar, who had just been named the paper’s police bureau chief. She’d gotten off to a lousy start, as far as Browne and company were concerned.

“But it’s okay now. She came in and we worked it out,” the official said. He cryptically added: “We’re all good with her. You’ll see.”

What occurred in the following weeks was remarkable. Gendar surged to the top of the pack. It appeared Browne and his minions contacted her first on just about every breaking story. What exactly had she said to Browne’s public relations team? How did she “work things out”? Gendar’s detractors speculated she’d made a pact with police brass, that her special access was contingent on her being a department cheerleader. Her supporters pointed to all her published work. One thing was quite clear: For more than a year, there was no better informed police reporter in New York. I never found out how Gendar locked down this special relationship, but my guess is she probably promised something favorable to the NYPD in her coverage if they favored her over competitors.

If she did, she would not have been the first reporter to use good spin to gain privileged access. Though this kind of relationship has its benefits, you risk losing objectivity by compromising editorial integrity. For most writers, you don’t have to make any deals. Meeting cops and convincing them to give you information can be accomplished if you pay attention to what’s going on around you.

In New York, cops can be approached at parades and demonstrations, where many are friendly—they’re earning overtime—and open to talking. Another way to build contacts is to attend the monthly precinct council meetings that station houses host with the public. These events give residents a chance to air complaints and hear precinct leaders discuss strategies for fighting crime. Usually there are refreshments and casual mingling. To find out when they occur, call the precinct’s community policing office and ask for the time and place of the next meeting. Sometimes these details are also listed on precinct web sites.

As you get to know officers, you’re likely to find out about events that are more personal than council meetings. Retirement parties, gatherings of fraternal organizations, promotion ceremonies, and memorial services are all ideal for extending your reach. Work the room, introduce yourself, hand out business cards, and collect cell phone numbers.

To get invited to such events you’ll need to establish yourself as trustworthy. Many cops are conservative in at least one sense of that word—politically, financially, socially, religiously—and tend to distrust the media. The job is important to them, and they respect the chain of command, which usually means they are not authorized to speak to the press unless given permission. Doing so could jeopardize their careers.

To get past that protocol, you must be open to understanding the police officer’s point of view and appreciating his or her experiences. I don’t always agree with my police sources, but I admire their hard work, dedication, and courage. Being candid and curious about the line of work is a necessity if you hope to get sources to open up. Officers have to count on you to use their information appropriately. And if they are confidential sources, they need to know you won’t reveal their identities.

How I broke in

My introduction to police sourcing began in the early ’90s in downtown Brooklyn’s 84th precinct when I befriended two sergeants—John and Jim—who basically ran the place. It was a different time then during Commissioner Bill Bratton’s first tenure at the helm of the NYPD. Bratton’s philosophy when it came to the press was: If cops were doing good work, allow them to share that information with reporters. These two sergeants knew this and were eager to step into the spotlight. Without their help, I would not have had much success.

They were in a unit called CPOP (Community Police On Patrol), an initiative Bratton launched during a tenure in which he revolutionized crime fighting with a series of new strategies. Their precinct commander, an older gentleman, relied on these young sergeants to come up with creative solutions, and he gave them a fairly free hand to tackle crime in the community. One of their first experiments was to set up a bike program for cops to better patrol the Brooklyn Heights promenade. I heard about this story and went down to the precinct, where I met the sergeants.

John and Jim were engaging, passionate, and to my surprise, funny. We got along instantly. I wrote a brief feature on the bike program; they liked it and began to tell me about other things that were going on at the precinct and the neighborhoods they protected. Before long, I made it a point to stop at the station house every day to check in. They talked me up to other patrol cops and supervisors as well as detectives who worked robbery and homicide cases.

Within a few months, I was being invited on “ride-alongs” during which I accompanied cops as they busted up a drug den or went after a deli that ran numbers. After one such raid, we all rode back together in a police van, me in the back sitting near one of the suspects, a Yemenite, who was chatting with the arresting cop as if they were friends. “So tell me, are you from north or south Yemen?” the officer asked. “Do you have a girlfriend? Are you allowed to drink alcohol?”

I found this fascinating. The cops had just hurled this guy to the floor and cuffed him. Now they were developing him as a source of their own.

One night not long after that, John called me and said, “You should come down to the precinct tonight. We got something going.”

It was 10 p.m. when I arrived, and the place was buzzing. The sergeants had organized a prostitution sting to go after street walkers who had overtaken a corner of Third Avenue. They all had radios and were giving instructions to two young female cops who would soon be standing on that block, posing as working girls but dressed demurely in jeans and sweaters (which turned out to work just fine). Then Richie arrived. He was a tall, strapping beat cop who sauntered in wearing a cocktail dress, push-up bra, high heels, and a long flowing wig. The other cops erupted, hooting and whistling. He sashayed over, put one hand on his hip and announced, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful!”

Then we all hit the street corner. Hooker Richie was quite the success.

Best of all, I had been invited into the fraternity. After that, I attended every event I could. My sergeant pals were conduits to dozens of other cops, some of whom remain valuable sources. That experience taught me that meeting officers and earning their trust can be done by showing interest and proving you can cover their work fairly.

Speaking their language

Police have their own insider phrases and terminology, so you need to become fluent in their language if you want to earn their respect. A fairly common exchange on the street between a reporter and cop might sound like this:

“Hey, PO Wilson. Joe from the Tribune here. Didn’t I meet you last week at the Columbus parade?”

“Yeah, I was working a double.”

“So they’re finally coming through with some OT, eh? What house are you in?” (Meaning: what precinct are you assigned to?)

“The 7-8.” (The 78th precinct)

“You work midnights?” (The overnight shift)

“Four to 12s.” (Day shift)

“Cool. Who’s your CO?” (Commanding Officer)

“DI Jackson.” (Deputy Inspector)

“I remember him. I thought he put in his papers.” (Didn’t he retire?)

“Nah. He got sidelined, but the new PC brought him back.” (He fell out of favor with the former police commissioner and was transferred to an undesirable assignment. But his career is now back on track.)

Regular communication is also critical. I can’t stress enough the importance of calling your police sources as often as time allows and going to see them in person when you can. I usually share something I know with them first, then ask, “So what’s going on your way?”

Sources don’t always realize they’re in possession of valuable information, which means in some cases you must prompt them. “Anything happening with that burglary pattern we talked about? The squad catch any good homicides?” If the source doesn’t happen to have a story in mind, be sure to thank the officer for the time and end the conversation with a reminder to call you if anything comes up.

At a community meeting in Chelsea one night following a rash of nightclub violence in 2006, I struck up a conversation with a supervisor who had made a presentation on the local precinct’s efforts. He commanded the room quietly, gave an articulate speech and seemed to be open to meeting members of the public afterward. I approached so we could chat, telling him I was covering underage drinking, and asked for his card. The next day I called him, and we talked about the glut of late-night revelers on 27th Street.

“You don’t mind that I called you on your cell?” I asked.

“No, not at all. Call me any time,” he said.

I took him at his word and called regularly. It helped that I shared information from my end, letting him know what we were planning at the paper, how we saw things, angles for stories I was considering. I was careful not to give away compromising details that could have hurt us with competing papers, but chatting informally like this amused him, gave a sense of how our interests might intersect, and signaled my trust in him. Was there some risk? Probably. But I firmly believe journalistic relationships benefit from the personal touch. When you gossip or share insights, people tend to warm up and reciprocate. The more we talked—some weeks three or four times—the better the information I got.

A couple of months later I was in Chelsea walking on the street and saw a flier for a community meeting with the police, so I called the source, mildly chastising him for not having alerted me.

“It’s not really a big deal,” he said. “I really doubt there’s going to be anything newsworthy that comes out of it. But stop by if you want.”

“Anything else going on?” I asked.

“Not that I can think of,” he said. But an hour later, he called back. “We just got an interesting case… something a little different.”

The case turned out to be a shocking story involving a young man who was abducted and branded by his angry ex-lover. The victim had hooked up with this woman several months earlier, but after their one-night stand, he never called. When she happened to spot him on the street about a year later, she asked if he wanted to get together again for sex, and he agreed. What he didn’t know was she then contacted her current boyfriend, lying to him that the previous encounter had been rape. The scorned woman wanted revenge on this former flame and needed help. The boyfriend, the son of a prominent Queens prosecutor, was enraged and agreed to set a trap.

The couple and the boyfriend’s pal lured the unsuspecting man to a Chelsea hotel room, Tasered him, and intended to brand his backside with heated metal wire bent to spell “RAPIST.” They’d only managed the “R” before the victim’s screams scared them away. Soon afterward, the police were called, and they quickly arrested the couple.

The story ended up having a long run, landing on the front page half a dozen times as new details were revealed and the scandal developed.

Don’t trust everything you hear

A few words of caution: It’s easy to become too close to your police sources. They’re helpful, friendly, and give you great stories. But you can be lulled into believing everything they tell you is true. Police are just as susceptible to making mistakes as anyone. And if you don’t maintain an appropriate level of distance and skepticism, you can get burned.

This has happened to some legendary reporters, including one of the all-time greats in New York: Mike McAlary.

I have never met a journalist more capable of putting police officers at ease. McAlary, square-jawed, barrel-chested, and with a broad, bushy mustache, even looked like a cop. He stood up rigidly and spoke with a growl. He hung out in dive bars and always seemed to have on a rumpled sport coat and tie. McAlary also attended every police function imaginable, working the rooms like a politician. And when he asked for information, he got it. As a result, McAlary—who worked for Newsday, the New York Post, and the New York Daily News—was the city’s most prominent and best-paid police columnist.

But he was led astray in 1994 when a woman claimed she had been raped in Prospect Park. Police didn’t believe her story; they thought she had concocted the tale to promote her own agenda, which involved a women’s rights rally. McAlary’s sources told him this. They were convinced the rape never happened, that the “victim” was playing the cops. He got this straight from the top and went big with that angle. Unfortunately, the police had it wrong. The rape was real, the woman sued, and McAlary looked foolish.

It was a lesson he took to heart. Mac, who had made his name in the late ’80s with a book about police corruption titled “Buddy Boys,” redeemed himself three years later. By then he was dying, laid up with colon cancer at a New York hospital. One night he was watching the news when a report came on about a man who claimed he had been cruelly abused at a precinct station house after being arrested. This victim, it turned out, was being treated at the same hospital. So McAlary got out of bed and found him, which is how he told the world about what happened to Abner Louima—and earned a Pulitzer Prize.

When covering a rape and homicide in Brooklyn in 1996, I also found out what it felt like to get burned by my police sources. A woman and her lesbian lover were attacked in their brownstone building in Boerum Hill. One had been shot dead; the other was being treated for her injuries. But police thought the survivor was lying about having been raped. They suspected she invented this story of assault and somehow had played a role in the killing of her lover. But did the cops, in casting doubt on an alleged sex-assault victim, make the same mistake again? That was the question resulting from my coverage, which made it clear that detectives did not believe the survivor’s story. The doubt prompted outrage in the lesbian community. One afternoon they staged a protest in front of our paper. I was the target.

The truth didn’t come out for a year. A career criminal was arrested for a different offense, then suddenly admitted to the attack, revealing key details to detectives that had not been released publicly. He was guilty of rape and murder, and the living victim was finally vindicated.

This was a painful chapter for all involved. There’s no doubt I emerged from it as a better, more careful journalist. And like what happened to McAlary, my subsequent reporting took a more critical stance on police matters.


Those sources I developed from my “secret weapons” story tipped me off to all kinds of problems in the NYPD, including an appalling situation that resulted from the department failing to properly examine seized vehicles. Many turned out to have been stolen, but these cars and trucks were nevertheless sold at auction. The unwitting new owners would then get arrested for auto theft. Cops were essentially busting their own customers.

After this story ran, Paul Browne called my editor to complain. He didn’t like this story or others of mine that embarrassed the NYPD. Clearly, the wave of positive press in my work was fading, and he wasn’t happy.

“I lined up all those sources for him!” Browne railed. “I shouldn’t have done that, and I regret it. He’s using them against me.”

The following years were a nightmare for police reporters in New York. Kelly’s attitude changed. He grew determined to stop leaks and limit negative press and entrusted Browne to get the job done at any cost. The spokesman took this mission to heart. Browne developed a technique for terrifying sources. He got printouts from their NYPD-issued cell phones, and if a cop suspected of giving me information had my cell number on the printout, that cop was in trouble. Browne threatened my sources with transfers or even criminal prosecution if they continued to speak to me. On one occasion, my Deep Throat became convinced he might go to jail.

Fortunately, he didn’t, and Browne’s bullying didn’t succeed. Yes, he effectively discouraged some sources, but others grew so bitter and distrustful of his heavy-handed approach that they were happy to tip me off to sensitive or unfavorable stories. I shielded them by calling from pay phones or using disposable cells. And my access continued. If Browne’s goal was to stop me from writing anything critical about Kelly or the NYPD, he failed.

I came to appreciate that police sources are often wiling to risk everything to help reporters get the story out. For journalists who respect and protect their police sources, I believe they’ll continue to do the same.

Tags: , ,