Fair Coverage of a D.C. Shooting?

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, September 30, 2007

Post coverage of the sad Sept. 17 killing of 14-year-old DeOnte Rawlings, shot by off-duty District police officer James Haskel, brought a fiery complaint letter from Kristopher Baumann, head of the District's Fraternal Order of Police.

Baumann said, "I do not expect to agree with every story The Post writes; however, I do expect that . . . your newspaper will report fairly and will place a priority on people's safety, whether they are police officers or private citizens. I also expect that reporters on the police beat will develop an understanding of crime in Southeast, and how it differs from the rest of the city, so that coverage of crime in the city will be infused with some level of context and truth." He said that "inaccurate and biased" reports "have damaged the lives of two public servants and their families without allowing an investigation to occur."

Several reporters worked on the story as it unfolded. Police sources gave this account: After a minibike was stolen from Haskel's home, he and fellow off-duty officer Anthony Clay went looking for it in the neighborhood. They found DeOnte on the bike. Shots were exchanged. DeOnte was shot in the head and quickly died. All, by the way, are African American.

First among Baumann's 14 complaints was that by printing their names, The Post "knowingly endangered" the officers. Baumann also believes Post coverage was too sympathetic to DeOnte and "attempted to fuel community outrage" by quoting upset neighbors who weren't witnesses -- with little on Haskel and his character and background.

When a police officer kills a 14-year-old, it is news. The Post rightly pushed for and published the names. Baumann was critical of the anonymous sourcing of several stories. I'm no fan of anonymous sources, but an official investigation can hamper on-the-record comments and reporting can't stop simply because of that.

Police say shell casings from a .45-caliber handgun, though not the gun, were found at the scene, along with casings from a 9mm Glock pistol, which is used by District police. DeOnte's family stoutly maintained that he didn't have a gun. Baumann said stories should have said it is "common" for guns to vanish from crime scenes, but Post reporting didn't confirm that. District police spokeswoman Traci Hughes told me that "it's not typical, but it's not unheard of" for that to happen.

Baumann made a good point about missing coverage of Haskel, a member of the police helicopter unit. The first several days' stories quoted grieving relatives and incensed neighbors, though DeOnte's father, Charles, said early on that his son had been missing school and was hanging out on the street.

The first family photo of DeOnte in The Post was misleading; he was 9 when it was taken, and it should not have been published. A more recent photo appeared later, as did stories saying DeOnte had been questioned about several shootings, though not as a suspect. Ten days after the shooting, Thursday's story by Keith Alexander gave a much fuller picture of the divorce of DeOnte's parents and a functionally illiterate father who had 15 other children.

The City Paper reported right away that, according to the Office of Police Complaints, a fairly new District-funded civilian agency, neither officer had ever been investigated over excessive force or any other misconduct. The Post has not reported that; reporters felt that it wasn't as important as personnel records, which are confidential.

Last Sunday's story by Robert Pierre gave readers the first personal information about Haskel -- that he lived in a "gated community" near DeOnte's home. The developer of the community called Haskel an "outstanding young man" who has lived in the community all his life and has been a mentor to young people. Baumann objected that "gated community" sounded "rich."

Pierre went to Haskel's mother and friends to see whether an interview could be arranged, but no reporter called or dropped by to talk to Haskel or Clay. While they might not have wanted to talk, they should have had the opportunity. Their attorney did not return telephone calls, District police reporter Allison Klein said.

One person who could have aided such coverage was Baumann. Klein said she called and e-mailed him many times over several days without a response. Baumann said there was no point in answering; Klein knew he wouldn't comment on an ongoing investigation. But he could have pointed her toward other officers or offered suggestions about coverage. Baumann says other local news outlets found officers to talk to without his help.

Courtland Milloy's column on Wednesday added important perspective: Haskel's "gated community" consisted mostly of first-time home buyers who are active in the neighborhood; carjackings, robberies, burglaries and vandalism have plagued the development; a neighbor and property manager also praised Haskel.

Baumann also faulted The Post for failing "to raise serious questions" about Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's use of campaign funds to pay for DeOnte's funeral. Fenty's action, which was briefly reported Sept. 22 and again Thursday, angered some officers. I would like to read more about what rank-and-file officers think of the shooting and its aftermath; reporting is continuing.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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