Through the static of Rob Lamberti’s police scanner, the calm, detached voice of a female dispatcher announces that a car has crashed and is on fire on Queens Quay West. “Maybe we’ll get a Pepsodent smile tonight,” The Toronto Sun reporter says with a wry grin as he floors his red jeep and heads for the accident. Lamberti’s words are intended to shock, as he explains that a Pepsodent smile refers to the pearly white death grin of a blackened body. The thrill of the chase suddenly loses some of its appeal, but for the seasoned Sun reporter it is the first hot story of the night.
Lamberti, 35, is dressed for the night in a black jacket, black jeans and black Dr. Martens boots. His glasses cover a weathered face that has seen many tragedies during his eight years on the beat.
At the accident scene, billowing smoke obscures the interior of a black Alfa Romeo as five firefighters in yellow rubber suits douse the smashed remains of the sports car. The acrid smell of the fire hangs in the cold air, but tonight it is from burnt plastic and leather, not human flesh. The driver has likely fled after crashing the stolen car, and without a victim, the accident is just a crime statistic to Lamberti. He returns to his jeep and heads off to find a better story.
Lamberti’s dark humour and his hunt for human tragedy at first seem disrespectful and callous, but this is the reality of police-beat reporting in an increasingly violent and crime-ridden city. While the tragic stories receive much attention, the effect on the people who cover them does not. The beat changes many reporters, making them more cynical, more detached and sometimes more paranoid. Nick Pron, 43, of The 1Oronto Star has been covering crime for nearly a dozen years, and says he has received five or six death threats during his career. He claims they generally don’t bother him much; he says he’s more afraid of the ones he doesn’t get.
But one threat did hit home. Pron was told he’d better look under the hood of his car by a disgruntled interview subject. Pron didn’t really believe there was ever a bomb, but he still keeps his door open when he starts his car-hoping he’ll be thrown out if it blows up.
Starting out on such a stressful beat can be difficult. John Duncanson of the Star says police-beat reporters go through a period of adjustment to the job. He was affected by one of the first murder stories he worked on. “You become deranged, you can’t sleep, you can only think about the one murder.” Rob Lamberti even has his own term for what happens to reporters on the beat. He calls it “cop-reporter syndrome.” The police-beat reporters are on 24-hour call, and there was one year when Lamberti was the reporter who lived closest to downtown, where the majority of incidents take place. To Lamberti, it seemed like he was out on a call every night. Finally, it started to get to him. “I couldn’t sleep, I was lying awake waiting for a call. It’s almost like being a homicide detective.”
The erratic, late night hours also took their toll on his marriage, which he feels broke up in part because of his job.
People close to crime reporters see the impact of the beat. Mary Ellen Bench still remembers the first gory story her husband John Schmied covered for the Sun. A young woman had been run over by a truck and Schmied says seeing the remains allover the road really shook him up. “It was all he could talk about for a while,” says Bench. Now she says he has seen a lot worse and can cope with it. “He’s lost a lot of that innocence.” Schmied says that now when he sees a body, he views it only as an object. Seeing children hurt or killed is one of the toughest situations to deal with. Schmied thinks that when he has kids of his own, these situations will likely be even harder to handle.
Writing about the victim’s life helps many reporters deal with the tragedies they routinely cover. Some say that adding the human element to a story and making the victim more than just a name is its own therapy. Many newspapers offer specialized programs to help reporters deal with stresses both in their working and personal lives. Ann McKeown is head of a counselling service used by The Hamilton Spectator’s employee-assistance program. For more than 10 years she worked at the Spectator, offering counselling for anything from job stress and marital problems to drug and alcohol dependence. She feels that while reporters don’t become completely inured to tragedy, they do learn to cope with the stress, because it is a part of their job.
Bryan Cantley, manager of editorial services at the Canadian Daily Newspaper Association, says he is unaware of any studies of job stress on police beat reporters in Canada, but describes it as one of many areas in journalism that could use further research. Tragedy and stress, however, are not always a constant part of the beat. More often than not, the job is to hurry up and wait by their scanners and radios. “It”s like a cop’s job. It’s hours and hours of boredom with about 20 seconds of excitement and then hours and hours of boredom,” says Jim, a former British policeman turned freelance reporter (who doesn’t want his full name used).
It is a Friday night, and Rob Lamberti has been tipped off that a drug bust is going down in the Scarborough neighbourhood around 41 Division. He pulls his jeep into the police parking lot half an hour early for a 9 p.m. meeting with the undercover cops in charge of the bust. Lamberti puts his hand-held radio on the dash and flips through channels on the scanner he’s tucked into the visor above his head. Several Marlboro cigarettes later, the cops still have not appeared.
The inside of Lamberti’s car resembles an office on wheels with its clutter of coffee cups, unopened notepads, loose change and cigarette butts. The inside of the driver’s-side door has been damaged, exposing its metal frame. While Lamberti waits, the chaos of the busy city squawks out of the scanner as it automatically flips from ambulance to fire and police frequencies. At 9:05 p.m. a police dispatcher is heard talking to an officer at Humber College investigating a crime. Lamberti uses a cellular phone to call the police station, but the police won’t give out details. He decides to keep waiting in the parking lot, gambling the drug bust is a better bet for a story-even if it is, as Lamberti acknowledges, something of a public relations exercise.
The scanner continues to flip: an ambulance attendant has injected potassium chloride into a patient; at 9:20 p.m. a building at Queen Street and Gladstone Avenue is reported on fire. Using his hand-held radio, Lamberti contacts the newspaper to make sure a photographer is on his way to the fire.
The police paddy wagon drives out of the parking lot of 41 Division and Lamberti grows impatient. “I wish they’d invited us to the fucking scene,” he mutters under his breath.
Finally, at 10:49 p.m. the paddy wagon returns and a sullen, rag-tag group of 13 men, women and teenaged boys are led out. They stand long enough for the Sun photographer to snap their picture and listen to the rules of the lockup before they’re led inside the station. Lamberti jots down details and learns that more than $100,000 worth of drugs were seized, then heads back to the office to write it up.
According to some policebeat reporters, city crime became noticeably more violent, and more guns began being used about five years ago. They relate the increase to the first appearance of crack cocaine on the streets. Metro Toronto police statistics show that there were 37 homicides in 1986, and 60 in 1987. In 1991, 83 people were murdered and at the end of 1992, 64 murders were recorded. Crimes involving weapons totalled 3,939 in 1990, and reached a high of 4,584 in 1991, before dropping slightly to 4,442 in 1992.
Witnessing so much of the city’s crime often makes reporters over-protective of themselves and their families. Mary Ellen Bench says she would love to live in downtown Toronto, but her husband refuses to. His family has never been the target of violence, but this makes him no less cautious. Schmied is aware of the good and bad neighbourhoods in Toronto. He says that people have called the police desk at the Sun before buying a house. His current house in Mississauga is only two blocks from a police station.
Schmied also admits that the job has made him much more cynical about the people who commit crimes. He describes himself as having gone from being a “bleeding heart Liberal” to believing that the death penalty is justified for some crimes. “I’d even pull the switch in some cases.” Pron, who spent time working on a Master of Social Psychology, has a similar outlook. “I’ve stopped thinking in terms of rehabilitation. Now it’s more like: lock the bastards up.” Pron feels his change in attitude comes from seeing the devastation crime can have on victims and their families.
For many beat reporters, doing pickups of victims’ photos and having to interview victims’ families can be the most heart-wrenching part of the job. Getting the pictures, though, is a source of pride for reporters.
Pron’s toughest pickup involved the families of six women who had been killed when a car ploughed into them during a bike trip in Hamilton. The story, he said, made his stomach turn. At the first house he visited, the relatives slammed the door in his face. At the second, he finally persuaded a victim’s husband to talk with him. He was there for almost eight hours, shared a bottle of whisky and a lot of tears. The husband knew all six victims and “it turned out he had pictures of most of the women,” says Pron. “Then they forgot to put my byline on it after all that.”
For some, constantly dealing with human tragedies and invading people’s private grief can be too much. Former Sun reporter Shelley Gillen questioned whether this invasion was worthwhile, despite finding that she had a knack for getting good “sob?’ stories. As a general assignment reporter, she often interviewed the relatives of victims. An interview with a man she described as “an emotional mess” was a factor in her decision to leave the paper. The man’s fiancee had been murdered the week before, and Gillen was unaware that her editor had made a deal with him. The paper agreed to leave him alone if he talked to a reporter.
“His sister brought him,” says Gillen. “She was propping him up while I asked questions.” His father arrived part way through and forced them to stop the interview. When Gillen later returned from a holiday in the fall, she learned that the man and a friend of his fiancee had been part of a murder-suicide. “I wondered, did my talking to him or anything else have an effect on this?” Gillen agonizes. She left the paper the following February with no job to go to. She simply had had enough.
If the job causes so much grief, why do reporters continue to cover the beat? Those who stick with crime reporting truly enjoy covering police, fire and ambulance calls, says Bill Duff, the Sun’s night city-desk editor for the past four years. He says a good crime reporter has a talent for moving quickly when a story breaks, being aggressive and listening to scanners.
Some reporters have been on the police beat as long as 10 years at the Sun, and Duff says a few have been on the beat too long. “They get jaded, but then they look around and ask, ‘Do I really want to cover City Hall or do I prefer covering police and fire?'” The veteran reporters have also built up good contacts, and the beat offers more independence than being on general assignment.
Most police-beat reporters feel that the public needs to know about the crime happening around them. Lamberti feels that stories that make the public aware of the atrocities a criminal has committed, or reporting on a sentence he feels is not tough enough, make the job worthwhile. He admits, though, that he got into the beat because of the excitement. And, it seems, that is the true appeal for most police reporters. Gillen says the beat can be a thrill for reporters. “For a lot of people there’s an adrenalin rush to tragedy and crisis.” Schmied has worked for the Sun for about seven years-first on the police desk, then as a general assignment and Queen’s Park reporter. He continued following crime stories even after he left the police beat by carrying a scanner in his car. Now that he’s back on the crime beat, he says he’s having the most fun he’s had in the past two years.
Pron feels the same way. “If there wasn’t an edge, I wouldn’t do it,” he says. Originally, he thought he was destined to be a political reporter but finally decided he didn’t like that beat. “It was like watching grass grow,” he says. “It took a while to realize that crime was my one true love.” After running through back alleys and climbing on a roof to cover a man threatening people with a gun, Pron was hooked. ‘~lot of us say being a reporter is like being a drug addict. You get a story on the front page and it’s like a shot of adrenalin. Then you start coming down and you’re in the dumpster, and you start looking for another fix.”
It’s 2 a.m. Friday, and Lamberti has been replaced by Jim on the “vampire” shift until about 8 a.m. As the tall, heavy-set freelancer drives up University Avenue, a soft, orange glow from his two scanners lights the interior, while a Bob Marley tape plays softly in the background. Suddenly, the calm is broken by the sound of sirens and excited voices as one of the scanners tunes in to a police chase. “He’s going north on Jane, he’s waving his arms out the window,” says a male police officer. The car’s speed is called out by the officers in pursuit: 100 kilometres, 120 kilometres. “There’s going to be a major pileup,” the reporter predicts. “Hope you haven’t eaten anything recently.”
The former British police officer makes a sharp left off Avenue Road and speeds along Dupont Street looking for the pursuit. The skill of his police training comes through as he stomps on the brakes for a stop sign and then instantly hits the accelerator. Stopping for a red light, he times the green signal with the precision of a drag car racer.
“He’s heading south, now east,” an exasperated sounding police officer reports. “He’s going in circles,” the reporter adds.
The flashing red lights of the police appear down another side street and the reporter’s blue Taurus follows. The police report speeds as high as 150 kilo metres an hour before they are ordered to call the chase off. “That’s no fun, sir,” a female officer replies.
Slowing down, the excitement level drops. The Ontario Provincial Police report that the blue mini van has finally crashed without injury into a median while heading south in the northbound lane of Highway 427. Driving east back along Eglinton Avenue, quiet returns to the car, but a feeling of disappointment that the chase is over remains.
The craving for another crisis is quickly satisfied: the glare of yellow crime-scene tape appears, and it’s time for another fix, investigating a hit and run.