‘Good sources are no substitute for open government’

June 13, 2012
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Matt Apuzzo
AP reporter Matt Apuzzo this week accepted the New York Press Club’s Gold Keyboard Investigative Journalism Award, bestowed on him and three of his colleagues for their series, "NYPD Spies on NYC."

The series, which began last August and also earned the quartet a Pulitzer Prize and other journalism honors this year, has documented the New York Police Department’s post-9/11 surveillance activities – surveillance of Muslim communities, on college campuses and in nearby municipalities. The AP stories can be seen at www.AP.org/nypd

In Apuzzo’s remarks at the Water Club in Manhattan, he called on his fellow journalists to demand greater access to public documents now parceled out by the NYPD. “If we won’t argue for openness, who will?” Apuzzo said. “Let’s demand more, even if it means we sometimes get handed a little less.”

Here are Apuzzo’s comments in full:

It really is such an honor to be here with you all. And I know I speak for Adam [Goldman], Eileen [Sullivan] and Chris [Hawley] when I say that it is particularly special to us to have this story recognized by our New York colleagues, for whom we have so much respect.

Adam Goldman and I were looking back on this series not too long ago and we talked about how much of what we do now is built on what we learned as cub reporters working the cop beat. That beat prepares you for a life in journalism. I’m sure a lot of you here tonight started the same way. 

Adam cut his teeth at the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Virginia. Eileen worked at the Courier Post in New Jersey and Chris started at the San Juan Star. I was a 19-year-old intern at the Morning Sentinel in Waterville, Maine. I remember the cop reporter took me along to the police department for her daily checks of the call logs. She showed me how to look for slow response times, spot crime trends and sniff out things that just didn’t smell right. She’d ask for police reports and mug shots, sometimes just to snoop around, to put a pair of independent eyeballs on what the police were doing.

There was nothing particularly special about it. It was just good, solid reporting. And it got me thinking, that’s the kind of journalist I want to be when I grow up.

Everyone here had moments like that. Now, here we are in this beautiful room, in the center of the media universe, surrounded by the best in the business. And I wonder: Would that work here, in New York? Could we demand that kind of transparency from America’s largest police force?

It’s no secret, of course, that it doesn’t work that way here. You can’t just walk into a precinct and ask to see the logs. Here, we have the “Shack.” There’s a dedicated phone system that lets the press office feed us info quickly. You can’t just pick up a police report or grab a mug shot. Here we have the “sheets,” where the press office picks the cases it sees as most newsworthy. You can’t easily get 911 tapes. There are thousands of cameras in this city, but good luck getting a surveillance video.

If you tried to explain all this to a reporter at the Morning Sentinel, or any of the newspapers, radio or TV stations where we all got our start, they’d stop you and say, “Wait, what?” I don’t have to tell you what’s happened to transparency since 9/11. In Washington, the overclassification of information is rampant. Take a look at WikiLeaks. In some cases, the government was just reading the news and stamping the word “classified” on it. The more the government controls the information, the more susceptible the public is to manipulation. Take the Osama bin Laden raid or, more recently, the cyberattacks on Iran. These are highly classified operations. And when they leak out, the government looks very good. Yet write a story about a botched operation in Iran or mismanagement at the NSA, and the government tries to throw people in jail.

In New York, the NYPD does not have the authority to classify documents. But we’ve seen the rise of a different label: “NYPD Secret.” The intelligence division’s operations are considered so secretive, they won’t even release their organizational chart.

We were fortunate that we were able to meet some exceptional current and former NYPD officials who had access to records that were never meant to see the light of day. We learned about the Demographics Unit, a squad of plainclothes officers that hangs out at halal delis and eavesdrops in Muslim neighborhoods, building files on business owners who serve devout customers. We’ve seen informant reports from inside mosques, on people who committed no crime but were put in police files for talking about lawful protests or writing their congressman.

For generations, immigrants came to New York and Americanized their name as a way to blend in. At the NYPD, Muslims who change their name are immediately put under scrutiny, in case they’re changing their names so they can blend in and carry out an attack.

People can debate whether these tactics are right or wrong. Maybe we will look back a decade from now and the pre-9/11 America will seem so naive: How did the police keep us ever safe without a Demographics Unit? Or maybe we’ll look back and be embarrassed. I don’t know. But now at least, nobody can say they didn’t know what was going on.

See, the more stuff is kept secret, the easier it is for the government to dodge its own oversight responsibilities. The NYPD, for instance, has received nearly $2 billion since 9/11 from the federal government. But ask Congress or the Department of Homeland Security where the money went. They don’t know. The City Council rightly applauds the NYPD for beefing up its counterterrorism efforts after 9/11. But they’ve never held a hearing and asked how exactly it was being done.

A few years back, NYPD Assistant Commissioner Larry Sanchez went before Congress to talk about how the NYPD looks for terrorists before they strike. It’s something the federal government is still trying to figure out -- what makes a terrorist -- and the NYPD has been on the cutting edge, trying to figure that out. Sanchez told Congress that the NYPD now viewed lawful First Amendment activity as potential precursors to terrorism. And he said police here have been fortunate because New Yorkers have given them wide latitude to do that. None of the senators said, “Tell me more.”

The problem with a system that keeps public documents a secret and relies solely on press officers to dole out information is obvious. There’s less incentive for them to be completely frank with us. And journalists have less incentive to bite the hand that feeds them. So, we work around secrecy by cultivating sources. But make no mistake: Good sources are no substitute for open government.

None of this should be taken as a knock on the NYPD. Rather, it’s a call to action to us. If we won’t argue for openness, who will? Let’s demand more, even if it means we sometimes get handed a little less. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. And let’s remind everyone that keeping people safe doesn’t require keeping them in the dark.

This can be a cutthroat business, I know. And nobody wants to be the one to make waves. But if we all do it, if everyone makes outrageous demands like, “May I please see the police report,” we might just have a shot. Best case scenario, the public gets the government it deserves. Worst case, we can still feel like the reporters we wanted to be when we grew up.

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