Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Proudest Moment in Journalism

I was a reporting intern at the Philadelphia Inquirer in June 1992, when a police shooting came over the police band radio one night. An officer had been shot in the West Philly. I grabbed the cell phone (remember the huge ones they had back then?), and a notepad, jumped into a company car, and drove straight over to the scene. When I got on the block I found the area around a private home in the middle of the block cordoned off, and police swarming all over. There was a bus parked just a few feet away from the house.
When I finally got to speak to a police spokesperson, I was told that two police officers were responding to a call, and knocked on the door of the now cordoned-off house. An unidentified man came to the door with a gun and shot one of the officers. The fallen officer’s partner managed to pull him away from the house and called for backup.
When backup arrived police lined up across the street from the man’s house, and they used a bullhorn to call for the unidentified man to surrender himself. Neighbors poured out the house to watch what was happening, as the police called, again, for the man to surrender himself; again, no response from the house. It was about 11 p.m. A few minutes later, a bus turned onto the block, just as the unidentified man finally comes to the front window. The police said the man opened fire on them, and they returned fire, primarily because they were afraid that he would injure someone on the bus. The man was subsequently killed in the “controlled police shooting.”  They also said a .38 caliber pistol had been found under his body.
            However, I had been milling around the crowd for almost a 1/2 hour, by then, and was told quite a different story by neighbors. They were saying they couldn’t understand why the police had shot “Window-Washing Charlie,” because he never bothered anyone. They were telling me they were furious, because the police opened fire on the house without warning, and there were children in the street who could have been hurt. When I went back to them and told them the police said it was “a controlled shooting,” they laughed.
I then went back to look at the bus still abandoned in the middle of the street. There were indeed bullet holes in the bus, but all were on the side facing the police; none on the side facing Mr. Matthews’ home. Then I interviewed another neighbor who told me that she called the police on “Charlie” because he had music blasting, but she didn’t mean for them to kill him. When I told another neighbor that police said they had found a .38 under the man’s body, the neighbor sucked his teeth and said that the only gun “Window-Washing Charlie” had was the starter pistol he used to used to signal the start of a race at the Penn Relays.
            I called the story into the Philadelphia Inquirer’s city desk, because we were almost past deadline for the morning paper. I told the night editor both the police’s version, and what I heard from the neighborhood. I also told him that though I didn’t know the whole story, I knew the police were lying. The night editor asked me how I knew, and I said, “I come from a neighborhood just like this, and I know when folks are saying things to cover for each other, and when they’re saying things because they’re infuriated because they’ve witnessed a wrong. This is definitely the latter.” There was a pause, then the night editor told me he would call me back in five minutes. When he did call me back, he told me that while he respected my “street sense,” he was going to have to take the police’s version of the events because there was another Inquirer reporter who had just made it to the scene, and his interviews suggested that the community didn’t know what they were talking about. I then told him that the reporter who had just arrived on the scene had immediately gone to the police and police spokesperson, and hadn’t bothered to speak to anyone in the street. The night editor started out being patient, then went to condescending, then pretty much bordering on anger. He reminded me that while I was a good intern with real “news sense,” the other reporter in question was a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. I then told him, I may have not won a Pulitzer Prize, but I know enough to listen to all sides before making up my mind what was true or not. I think that this hit a chord, because the night editor softened up. Still, he told me, the newspaper was on deadline, and the incident had to be reported, and there was no choice but to go with the police report. After hanging up, I called the City Editor at home, and . . . crying . . . I told him what happened. He listened, then said he would call me back. He did 15 minutes later, and said that the paper was going with the police version, but it was NOT going to be stated as if it were an accepted fact, but as . . . “according to police.” Further, he said that I would be allowed to do further investigation into the story the next day.
Well, a few days later, I had my very first front page story.
            My investigation lead me to find out that the man in the house was Mr. Charles Matthews, who was known in the community as "Window-Washing Charlie." He was a 50-something-year old man who did odd jobs around the neighborhood and liked to drink. Harmless, they all agreed, though he did drink too much. But he was also a good neighbor, who would sweep the block every other day, and voluntarily shovel snow from houses owned by elders in the block. Neighbors told me that earlier on the day of the shooting Mr. Matthews received a workman's compensation settlement, bought a couple of bottles of wine, and went home and started playing loud music. A couple of kids in the neighborhood, hearing that Mr. Matthews had come into some money, had been knocking on his door all day and night, trying to get him to come out and buy them all drinks.
About 10:30 PM, Mr. Matthew's next door neighbor called police and told them that her neighbor was playing his music too loud. A short time later two undercover police officers knocked on Mr. Matthew's door. Not knowing who was at the door, Mr. Matthews opened the door and told them to go away, and then showed them a starter’s pistol that he used to use as in the Penn Relay to intimidate them. Remember, the officers were wearing civilian clothes (undercover), and they were also young. The one who was shot, in fact, was only 25. Since they did not identify themselves as policemen (this according to a neighbor who was watching from her window), Mr. Matthews had no way of knowing it wasn’t another couple of young men, harassing him to come out so they could get his money. When Mr. Matthews showed them the starter pistol, one of the officers yelled, "Look out, he has a gun." The neighbor, who had called the police in the first place, said the next thing she knew both officers had their guns drawn, two shots had been fired, and one officer was dragging the other down the steps. She saw Mr. Matthews, who looked shaken, slam the door. Police, after being pressured by my paper (especially me!) finally admitted that Mr. Matthews had not shot anyone, and one officer had shot the other in a panic after seeing Mr. Matthews’ starter pistol.
When backup was called, police lined up across the street from Mr. Matthews' house, but they never went to his door or called for him to come out. Instead they put up flood lights which they shone into Mr. Matthews’ front window. Mr. Matthews came to the window to find out what was going on just as a bus was coming up the street. The police immediately opened fire. More than 112 bullets from police guns were found in Mr. Matthews’ home. As for the .38 caliber gun found under Mr. Matthews’ body, police admitted that Mr. Matthews’ prints were not found on the weapon, but claim they don’t how it got there. (Yeah, right!)
Bottom line, Mr. Matthews died, never knowing what was going on, or that he was in danger.
The staff at the Philadelphia Inquirer’s city desk, and the City Editor, surprised me at my desk with a large framed print of the front page story. I still have that print proudly displayed in my home office.
After my story hit, the African-American community went into an uproar – but it wasn’t until CNN picked up the story that local African-American politicians and community activists linked arms, and started marching through the streets.
I was at a news conference that one of the political activists was giving when he started blasting the media for habitually aiding the police in their cover-ups of their crimes against the community. There were television, radio and newspaper reporters at the press conference – two reporters from The Philadelphia Inquirer. Many of the reporters turned to look at me, since they knew my role in bringing the true story out, and expecting me to respond to the accusations. I said nothing – I just kept writing in my reporters pad.
When asked later why I didn’t say anything I told them that that the Inquirer had been around a lot longer than I had. If that was the community’s perception of them, then maybe there was a reason. Me? My conscience was clear, and I had no desire or need to clear myself when I knew I had done the right thing.
This was definitely my proudest moment in journalism. Yeah, no police officers were indicted because of his death, but at least I did what I could to clear Mr. Matthews’ name, and shed light where others had sought to cast darkness.
This had to count for something.

Below is a link to the front page story


No comments: