Here at CityBeat, we almost never cover press conferences hosted by the Cincinnati Police Department. That's because we almost never know when the police will hold a press conference. But it's not for want of trying.
The closest we've come in recent years was March 8, 2004, when we learned from a radio news report that Chief Thomas Streicher had called a press conference for that very day. We sent staff writer Stephanie Dunlap to cover it. When she arrived, Streicher had her removed (see "Bounced by the Police," issue of March 10-16, 2004).
That kind of behavior looked bad for a police department with a history of strained relations with the public, so the city manager's office ordered Streicher not to do it again.
We're pleased to report that none of our reporters have since been evicted from a police press conference. That doesn't mean we've attended any, because the police department doesn't tell us when it's going to hold a press conference.
Earlier this year we called the mayor's office to complain, hoping that the new mayor, Mark Mallory, would demand fair play for all media dealing with the police. He simply referred us to the city manager's office, which advised us to subscribe to a voice mail service used by the police to announce press conferences.
The voice mail service, operated by Cincinnati Bell, costs $4 a month.
Perhaps we should have subscribed without asking any questions. Instead we asked questions: Is it legal to charge for this service? Aren't these announcements a matter of public record?
The answer came in a rather amusing March 27 letter from the city solicitor's office. It seems the messages on the voice mail service are public records, but only after the fact.
"Since the Public Records Act does not allow for 'ongoing requests' for public documents which do not yet exist, such requests will be required to be made on or after the specific dates for which you would like the messages to be provided to you," the letter said.
We have lots of experience with public records requests to the police department. Our latest request was for copies of the arrest reports from the recent crackdown in Over-the-Rhine. We asked for them in early May. We haven't yet received them.
The upshot of the city attorney's letter was that we could get the announcements about police press conferences, but it might take a good long while -- by which time, of course, we'll have missed them.
So we gave in. We decided to cough up the $4 a month to subscribe to the voice mail system. We called Cincinnati Bell, as instructed by the police. But Cincinnati Bell balked.
The voice mail system used to announce police press conferences is so outmoded that the phone company is phasing it out, according to Cincinnati Bell. A company representative told us we couldn't subscribe because the company wasn't accepting any new subscribers to that service.
We knew the police department, the city manager's office and the city solicitor's office wouldn't have done all this just to play a trick on us, so we went back where we'd started. We called the police, who called Cincinnati Bell, who then provided a number for the voice mail system, a log-in number and a password.
The first few days we tried it we were told there were no messages. Now when we try it, we get a recording saying our log-in number doesn't exist. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Police Department seems to be the only organization in the Western Hemisphere unable or unwilling to operate an email system.
In the months since we started this quixotic journey, Streicher has held at least one press conference that we didn't know about -- he discussed the crackdown in Over-the-Rhine, the one that generated the arrest reports we're still waiting for.
But this is why CityBeat never covers police press conferences, and we thought you'd want to know.
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