Challenging authority to ensure an informed and engaged citizenry is the bedrock of the journalistic profession. For Sidney Herald editor Amy Efta, that task came all too soon after taking her position at the local Montana newspaper.
Efta became editor of the Herald in May 2019. As part of her efforts to learn the ropes and familiarize herself with her staff and their beats, she accompanied her reporter to a weekly meeting at the local police precinct to collect arrest records. Efta was especially curious about the process because, almost immediately upon taking the job, she began receiving queries from readers wondering how some people – “often said to be ‘popular’ citizens” – who got arrested were being omitted from the weekly arrest report in the paper.
When she began looking into it, it became clear almost immediately that there was more to the story than she had anticipated.
“I asked questions about the process [and] got stonewalled right away,” Efta said of her initial meeting with the police. “No documentation was provided to us. What was given to us was just a verbal telling of the arrest reports. So the fact that I had a reporter going over there to basically be read to on a weekly basis didn’t sit so well with me.”
Efta, who had been an editor at a different paper before, said it was common for the police to send documentation for those arrest reports. “So I asked … when did this process develop? Why is it done this way? And right away … I felt my ‘Spidey’ senses tingle.”
Not long after that initial meeting, Efta attended a local city council meeting, during which the chief of police delivered his monthly report. “I took that report and I brought up all the arrest reports that were given to the Sidney Herald for that previous month and compared them to the number of arrests that he was reporting to city council,” Efta said. “I found, I would say, a sizeable discrepancy in those numbers.”
When Efta confronted the police chief about the discrepancy, “He did not respond favorably to me asking [about the arrest reports] and accused me of getting my news from social media,” she said.
This refusal to share records was, according to Efta, a violation of Montana’s open records laws, so she submitted a written request for a complete hard copy of the city’s arrest reports. Less than a day later, she was called into the police station by the captain and escorted into an interrogation room – not their usual meeting place in the captain’s office.
“I decided this is what we’re going to give the Sidney Herald,” the captain told her, making it clear that withholding information from the paper was, in fact, a clear decision.
Around the same time, Efta learned about a police officer who had committed a crime who had not yet been charged. “That’s when I learned my instincts had been right,” Efta said.
When the Herald requested the officer’s personnel file and the internal investigation report, the situation came to a head. “We requested [the documents], and after a month, Sidney City Council finally agreed to hand them over. Then, in an unprecedented move, the county attorney stepped in and blocked that decision,” Efta explained. “At that point, it became much less about the officer’s action and much more about his leadership’s determination to cover it up. … It was a real matter of public trust.”
The Herald covered its ongoing fight with the police department in a series of editorials penned by Efta, in which she recounted her conversations with the department and the steps the paper was taking to solve the problem. “What was interesting about this series of editorials is that the first one gained a lot of support from readers, [while] the second one exposed us to a lot of criticism,” Efta said.
“I think the reaction in a small town, especially when people feel so protective of their communities, was to be really defensive about what was happening,” Efta explained. “[That’s when] the harsh comments on social media started unfolding. I eventually had to deactivate my [Facebook] account because of things that were being said on there and the harassment that ensued.”
But Efta wasn’t ready to give in. “I really believe in the principles of transparency, especially by our government agencies or government entities … and that our freedoms as Americans are rooted in our right to know,” she said. “And I think when somebody tells you you’re not privy to that information, I want to know why, and I want to know how we can share it in a way that’s responsible and in the benefit of public interest.”
After months of back-and-forth with the police and the city council, Efta and the Sidney Herald eventually got ahold of the records they sought and they were able to continue reporting on their community – this time, sharing all of the arrests. “I think that the understanding of the role of community newspapers here has improved with the entities I work with. Of course, you’re never going to have everybody convinced of why you’re here and what you’re doing,” Efta said. “The relationships have improved greatly with the city and with the police department. So, I think we just have to learn to appreciate the battles [we’ve] won at this point.” This improved understanding has the positive effect of better, more comprehensive reporting on crime-related events happening in the community.
“I think especially in this day and age, where the very nature of journalism is under fire on an almost daily basis, what we can do as small-town newspaper people is to make sure that people understand that journalists are people or community members,” Efta added. “We’re committed to truth-telling and to getting the story, whether it’s a good story or a not-so-favorable story about our town. But we’re all here on the ground, in the trenches, and we’re committed to the process. And if we can put a face to the media, I think that can only serve us well.”
You can read the Sidney Herald‘s editorials, “Policing the Police: Part I,” here and “Policing the Police: Part 2,” here.
Jennifer Peters is former content manager of the News Media Alliance.