From cop to reporter: my transition to journalism
After 26 years of seeing the gutter to the glitter of most everything of what society has to offer, I retired from a career in law enforcement that saw me rise from a being a patrol officer to a detective and finally as a sergeant supervising a shift of officers.
I had no serious plan for post-retirement that, at the fairly young age of 51, saw me leave a career I had prepared for and loved for the majority of my life. At the time the economy was in a serious dump, my department offered a two-year buy up in service credits to those eligible, and financially it made sense.
After a couple of months of completing my wife’s plan of “no white wall left behind” of home projects, I went out to lunch a couple of times with a former detective partner of mine who had left policework due to an injury and at the time was working for a Central Valley California newspaper.
“It’s really no different than being a cop,” my friend said about his current career. “You go out and interview people, ferret out the truth, and come back and write about it. Maybe you catch a good story that needs investigation.”
His correlation was very accurate about the daily activities of being a police officer – talking to people and writing with the occasional great lead for a case.
The paper needed extra help for local election coverage and he pitched me to the editor to take the assignments. After a few weeks of handling those stories, the city government desk opened up and I gladly accepted the new challenge. City government and the occasional crime story was perfect for me since I didn’t quite have the warm-and-fuzzies needed for assignments in education or community interest pieces.
In my prior life as a cop, I was well versed with the ins-and-outs of city government. As one who was criticized by former superiors for using a heat lamp when I shined light on a city snafu as well as bucked the “you gotta go along, to get along” mantra that so many followed, I viewed the situation as my opportunity to finally ask all those questions to city leaders. Things that had previously been shoved down my throat by my former city for unconditional acceptance were now expected to be questioned.
Journalism gave me a new zeal as I tracked down stories and tried to get the inside scoop to beat the larger papers in the area.
Using my ability to snoop, I discovered stories of the city using dedicated water and sewer funds to pay employee lawsuits, inside dealings involving the city’s airport and its commission, as well as other shortcomings and disputes between officials.
My former partner’s analogy was right, and there was more. As detective I had used search warrants to get evidence, as a reporter I was filing public records act requests to get information. Cops have informants, as a reporter I was developing “sources.” Additionally, my familiarity with investigative methods was working to my advantage when it came to sources of information such as the courts (criminal AND civil), county records, and just plain networking. There weren’t any interrogations, but there were plenty of interviews that did have pointed questions.
The greatest advice for an aspiring investigative journalist is the same I would give for rookie officers who wanted to advance to becoming a successful detective; GOYAKOD – Get Off Your Ass, Knock On Doors. In other words, phone calls and Google searches isn’t going to cut it. Being out in the field, making contacts, talking with people is the key to having better stories than just what is on a press release or the initial “spin” by a PIO. Ask open ended questions and make them explain their answer.
I’m still learning much about the field in general and I’m in awe of great stories by reporters that use resources and do investigative journalism in all the different media organizations. The training and experience I received in law enforcement have given me the skills to have a new career I enjoy as much as I did as a cop.
Richard Paloma has been on the editorial staff of the Oakdale Leader in California’s Central Valley since 2011. A former police officer, he is also the author of two crime fiction novels, The Beach Club and Brushed Back.
Photo: Police car on the street at night via Shutterstock