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To serve or suppress

Police departments across Canada turn routine crime reports into official secrets, putting public safety at risk in the zeal to control information. That’s why Halifax’s pioneering move to free the police blotter is vital


Last fall, photographer Kyle Cunjak and his friends were swarmed while they walked in Halifax's north end, and Cunjak was stabbed. In hopes of coming to terms with the attack, his photos of his injuries--- which required hospitalization and subsequent plastic surgery---were featured in an art show last month. He's making progress with his health, and he says the police are helpful and understanding as the case against his attackers winds its way through the court system.

But there's one thing that continues to upset Cunjak about the incident: In the days before he was stabbed, there had been four other swarmings in the north end, but the police had not publicized the attacks. (See "Beatings and the blotter" sidebar.)

"If we had known, we probably would have taken a little more care," he says. "We'd probably be more on the lookout for trouble."

In fact, public knowledge of the previous attacks came from Cunjak himself, not from the police. Hospital personnel told Cunjak they had treated previous victims, which he explained to the media.

We don't know why the police didn't publicize the attacks. Maybe they honestly didn't think the swarmings were a big deal---but if so, that reflects poor decision-making on what should be made public. Maybe the cops thought news of the swarmings would reflect badly on the department, which suggests bigger concerns about message management and the reporting of crime stats.

"This was an oversight on our part and we admitted our error at the time," explains Theresa Rath, a spokesperson with the Halifax Regional Police, in a comment on an earlier version of this story online at "As soon as we realized the error, we took steps to provide full information on those assaults to our citizens."

That explanation from Rath still doesn't get at why the "oversight" was made. Or if there are other, on-going "oversights." But one thing's for certain: Had they happened in any city in the United States, the swarmings would have been part of the public record.

See, in every American city-- from podunk Searcy, Arkansas (population 10,000 and my last job) to New York City---the entire police blotter, which details each and every police call, is made available to the public.

In the States, every cub reporter has to do a stint on the police blotter. I've done this in several cities. On my way to work, I'd stop by the police department, and the blotter was usually at a desk off in a corner somewhere, usually next to a copy machine. I'd drop in a few dimes, copy the whole thing and take it to the office. At some papers, we just printed the whole thing; at others, we'd select a few of the more interesting ones and write short pieces on them. (For examples, check the collection of newspaper blotter reports at

But here in Halifax, and in Canada generally, the police blotter is not made public as a matter of course. Rather, the police watch commanders and communications team take it upon themselves to decide what will be of interest to reporters. Problem is, most days that's nothing at all. "Halifax Regional Police responded to 192 calls for service during today's shift, there were no calls of note to report," reads a typical report. (In the States, all 192 calls would be public record.)

Sometimes, the Halifax PD will publicize one or two police calls, but there's evidence that even those are selectively reported and leave out vital information---see "The great doodle heist" on page 5.

From my conversations with Rath and with other reporters in Canada, I've learned that there's a blotter divide between the US and Canada. Every US police department makes it completely public, and no Canadian police department makes it completely public. But there doesn't seem to be any legal or constitutional reason for the silence north of the border. It's simply the way things are done, or, more precisely, not done---a reflection of colonial and paternalistic views of government in Canada that should have been ditched long ago.

Moreover, the Halifax PD is very good about releasing past police records, as a King's College investigative journalism class discovered when it asked for three years worth of police calls. The police department falls back on computer programming excuses, not legal excuses, to explain away its day-to-day silence, but just on the other side of the border those problems were solved decades ago.

Still, I don't mean to overly criticize the police department--- after I raised the issue earlier this year, Halifax PD has responded somewhat positively, and this week spokesperson Brian Palmater tells me they are in the process of testing a new mapping feature that would make the incidents available not just to reporters, but to the public generally.

If so, this will be a quantum leap in the the opening up of police departments in Canada. This is a very good thing. Kyle Cunjak tells us that with full reporting of police calls last year, he probably wouldn't have been stabbed and hospitalized. What we don't know is how many other examples there are. Have other people been injured as a result of the silence?

Last week, the Halifax police publicly released photos they'd found on a phone of four partially dressed women, apparently in order to warn the women that they may be in danger. Some have criticized that decision, although in the balance of public safety it was probably the right thing to do. Still, it's hard not to think how this could have played out had the full police blotter been regularly released: A watchful citizen makes a connection the cops missed, a possible victim acts differently, and we never get to the point where releasing photos became necessary.

So, have other people been injured as a result of the silence? By freeing the blotter, the Halifax PD will at least make that second-guessing question go away. It can't happen fast enough.

Beatings and the blotter
Halifax’s police department issues a report every day about the previous day’s calls for service, and those reports are freely available online at But a look at the information the police released about swarmings around the time of the attack on Kyle Cunjak shows the gap between what the cops think is worth mentioning and what is happening on the streets.

Saturday, September 4, 2010
Halifax PD’s media release reports the following overnight activity:
---At 1:05am a man drowned at Chocolate Lake
---At 2:27am two women were robbed on Lemarchant Street

Sunday, September 5, 2010
The media release for the previous night reads in its entirety: “It was a steady day with call for service but nothing significant to report.”

Monday, September 6, 2010
The report recounts three incidents from the night before: ---At 11:16pm, a bank robbery on Dutch Village Road
---The 8:59pm attack on Cunjak and his friends
---A 9:04pm attack on a second couple

Tuesday, September 7, 2010
After Cunjak notifies the media that there had been earlier swarmings in the north end, Halifax PD issues a long media release detailing the previous swarmings that had previously been unreported. These were:

Friday, September 3, 2010
---At 9:20pm, a couple is approached by a group of six to eight people near Maitland Street and Divas Lane, asked for a cigarette, and attacked.
---At 11:37pm, a lone man approached by six to eight people, also near Maitland Street and Divas Lane, also asked for a cigarette, then attacked.

Saturday, September 4, 2010
---At 8:43pm, another couple, again in the area of Maitland Street and Divas Lane, were asked for a cigarette by an unreported number of people. The man was punched, but he and his female companion ran to a nearby residence and called police.

Sunday, September 5, 2010
---At 12:26am, three men walking near Agricola and Charles Streets were approached by a group of people who asked them for a cigarette. One man was thrown to the ground and all three were repeatedly punched but were able to run away and call police.

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