If there is one single part of a newspaper that I feel is vital nowadays, it must be the court report/police report. Some, if not all, of the most important news that occurs in a small community like ours is related to the crimes committed and the people who have committed them. I’ve been disappointed more than once by the consequences serious criminals face in Alberta’s justice system.
In the 25 years I’ve spent working in community journalism, a lot of my time has been spent covering provincial court, court of Queen’s bench and what we journalists like to call “police beat.” I’ve seen some very serious things pass through court, and sometimes the consequences of those serious offenses are rather weak.
Early in my career I covered a murder trial that apparently wasn’t a murder trial, at least judging by the consequences that the murderer faced. The case revolved around a man who stabbed his common-law wife to death at the breakfast table, with their child watching. He wasn’t convicted of murder but rather manslaughter (in essence, he “accidentally” killed her). He was sentenced to a few years in jail.
At another newspaper I worked at, RCMP provided me with a lot of information about ATV thefts. It turned out a group of children were coming into town late at night and stealing every ATV that wasn’t nailed to the ground. The police could prove this group of children stole about $1 million worth of ATVs in about a year. Because they were under the age of 18 years, the youthful thieves faced no consequences despite the harm they caused the community.
In the same community, my court reporter came back from provincial court one day after covering a trial for a man charged with child pornography. Even though he pleaded not guilty, he was convicted, yet didn’t get any jail time. He was placed on the sex offender’s registry etc. but I had to wonder what consequences this creep faced that prevented him from doing things like that again.
At the same newspaper, my court reporter came back from an eight-hour day of covering court and told me she had enough information to write 13 separate stories, and all of them involved alcohol in the crimes. I thought that was rather pathetic, as grown adults should know better than to act like high school students who just bought their first case of beer. Responding to these problems costs public time and money. What consequences are they facing for their drunken antics in the community?
But something I learned from being editor at a paper that had a very strong court reporting tradition and in-depth police beat coverage is that those who break the law can often be more worried about their name appearing in the newspaper than for any consequences they’ll face in court. Many a time I answered a call to hear the first words uttered, “What do I have to do to keep my name out of the court news?” to which I responded, “Stop breaking the law.”
Even though we have little or no control over what happens to culprits in court, a newspaper can provide the community with the information it needs about those people who choose to break the law and disregard community standards, the standards that often include things like not tolerating murderers, thieves or child molesters.
Offenders who shrug their shoulders at community standards have to face the judgment of their neighbours through the information provided by your community newspaper. They may face few or no consequences in court, but their actions and attitudes will be known to everyone in the community.
Stu Salkeld is editor of The Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the newspaper.