This summer I read every single police report in my entire county.

I am an intern reporter for a local newspaper covering San Mateo County, California, an area just south of San Francisco. As an intern, I have been given the classic young reporter’s busy work: reading for police blotter. Under State and Federal Freedom of Information Laws, law enforcement agencies are required to keep and make public records of police officers’ responses to 911 calls and other activities. Police blotter is a newspaper’s published review of such records. I am supposed to read through city records, copy notable reports, and call my editor if I find anything interesting. 

Police blotters, in many local papers, are printed with funny headlines. Think “Looking For Change” to label a report of someone stealing quarters from an unlocked car or “Time for Some Blinds” to title a report in which someone was peering into another person’s windows. 

But corny headlines aside, the poverty or addiction that would compel a person to steal coins, or the danger of being stalked by a neighbor, are most definitely not humorous. And this summer especially, in the midst of a national reckoning regarding police brutality and systematic racism, nothing about my community’s relationship to the criminal justice system feels funny to me. Reading these reports has been one of the most radicalizing experiences of my life. 

Here’s why:

In late June, someone in my neighborhood called the police on a group of people sitting in a car. They reported that the vehicle was occupied by a “loud gang of Mexicans.” When the reporting person was asked why they thought the people were gang members, they responded that there was a “group of them so they must be.”

On July 4, another resident of my town called the police on two people listening to music and “making people uncomfortable by staring at them.” The subjects were located sitting peacefully in a park, having committed no violations or crimes. 

My neighbors call the police on persons experiencing homelessness, sheltering in a tent by the train tracks. They call the police on people who whistle loud and when they don’t know the person ringing their doorbell. They call the police to report “vandalism,” later to find out the designs are a children’s art installation. 

Police blotter has lent me extraordinary insight into the incessant reliance that members of my community have on police officers, and it has demonstrated the glaring racism of my neighbors.

Reading blotter has helped me better understand why we need to defund and reform American police forces. We call on the same people to handle overgrown vegetation and injured ducks and dead deer as we do domestic violence and missing children and shootings and suicide threats. 

Observing the variance of circumstances for which my neighbors call law enforcement, I see how my city would be better served by a wider array of community initiatives in which professionals are delegated to respond to situations with greater specificity and training. 

Reading blotter has also revealed to me an outrageous lack of accountability for our law enforcement. 

Reports detailing a response to a resident’s call are usually clear and lengthy and allow me to share those stories here with detail. But when an officer “initiates activity,” meaning that they make a traffic stop or take action when they suspect a crime without the impetus of a phone call, the report is often left bare. 

Therefore, I have no anecdotes, merely statistics. According to a 2019 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, San Mateo County has the highest racial disparity in arrest rates between Black and white people in all of California. Black people in San Mateo County are eight times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. 

It is infuriating that our only public resource to understand situations of crime and arrest and to hold our officers accountable for bias is written by officers themselves. 

Furthermore, the bulletin pages from which blotter is sourced, while public by law, are often hidden or inaccessible. On several city police websites in my county, “press releases” (thorough and polished reports of the department’s handling of specific incidences) are highlighted in the foreground of the webpage, and the “bulletin” is a sidebar. Police blotter from the city of San Mateo is not accessible on a website at all and is only available through an email that requires complicated registration. 

A 17-year-old Black woman recorded George Floyd’s death. Amy Cooper was charged with false reporting because Christian Cooper took her video. Our impetus for outrage and change-making should not rest solely on the backs of courageous people of color, and it should not merely be stored in our camera rolls. The misconduct of officers and the racism of our towns’ residents should be evident in our public documents and obvious in our newspapers. 

I urge you to see if your city’s police bulletins are easily accessible. If they are not, find out why. If they are, give them a read and share widely what you find. 

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