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HOW THE STORY WAS REPORTED | Tragedy, grief in Oakland, as captured by the California Beat


The shocking and sad story of the deaths of four Oakland Police officers gunned down by a wanted parolee gripped much of the country last week. As a community heals from the shocking killings that stunned the world, we’ve been working hard to report the events of this truly tragic story.

>>>SPECIAL COVERAGE: Oakland Police Killings Beat page

Now, an inside look at how this story was reported from the California Beat team who brought you our coverage.

I was covering the ANSWER-sponsored anti-war march and rally taking place in San Francisco that day. It had turned violent, and I was caught in the midst of protesters and baton-wielding riot cops. Later, when I was making my way back home, I was sure it had been enough adrenaline for one day. Until I got a call I never expected to receive: several police officers had been shot in East Oakland, potentially all of them killed. It would turn out to be a heart wrenching story of four men brutally slain doing the job they loved. As a reporter, it was one of the most grueling assignments I’ve ever worked on.

It began with a mad dash to the Eastmont substation, where a press conference was slated for 4:30 p.m. A photographer still on the scene, wrapping up his camera equipment, broke the news that I had just missed it. Then, it was off to Highland Hospital, where we knew the officers had been taken. Broadcast station news vans filled the road. An entrance into the hospital at the top of the hill was blocked off with police tape, and a few solemn officers stood guard.

Reporters followed Police Chaplain Jayson Landeza down the sidewalk, asking him his thoughts. Hospital spokeswoman Patricia VanHook greeted the media from the other side of the police line, asking politely that all news vehicles be moved and referring all questions to OPD public information officer Jeff Thomason. A girl standing at the nearby bus stop was on her cell phone, telling the person on the other end of the line that at least three of the officers hadn’t made it. A mom, with her tricycle-riding daughter in tow, stopped to ask what was going on. I told her some police officers had been shot earlier in the afternoon, and her eyes grew wide before she turned and hurried her daughter along.

A police officer then greeted each reporter present, telling us there was nothing more to see here, that a press conference would be held at the substation at 7 p.m. (though it would take arriving to the quiet substation on time to learn it had been pushed to 9 p.m. at OPD headquarters downtown). In the interim, we went to the scene of the crime as nightfall approached. MacArthur Blvd. was still blocked off by police tape, the lights on police cars flashing. A couple young men were walking along 73rd Avenue, and they pointed out the top of the beige apartment building the suspected gunman had holed up in. I talked to them about what they knew, what this event meant to them. They illustrated the often divisive relationship between police and many young residents in this area.

When I arrived at police headquarters at a quarter before 9 o’clock, an officer was guarding the entrance to the building. He refused to let me in without a press pass, and gave two Daily Californian reporters a similarly hard time until one cleverly produced a hard copy of their newspaper, linking his printed name with the one appearing on his ID. No amount of pleading on my part seemed to sway him, so it was back to the newsroom to watch the presser live online, report what we knew, and receive photos of the four officers and the gunman from OPD.

And that was only Saturday. For the rest of the week the California Beat team dedicated ourselves to the unfolding story, looking into Lovelle Mixon’s past, updating Officer John Hege’s status, covering the vigil for the four fallen officers and attending their funeral on Friday. No doubt this historic story is far from over — a tragedy occurred on March 21, one which has not only ignited a firestorm of emotion, but a conversation on how to unite Oakland’s residents to overcome the violence plaguing their streets.

– Jennifer Courtney, California Beat

The drive home from the California Beat’s Oakland Bureau Friday night was an especially tough one. I passed the Oakland Police Eastmont substation, where flags were still flying at half-staff in honor of four fallen comrades. I skirted around the corner of 74th Ave. and MacArthur Blvd., where Sgt. Mark Dunakin and Officer John Hege were slain. A quick glance to my left while driving down 73rd Ave. was the beige apartment building where wanted parolee Lovelle Mixon continued his shooting spree by killing Sgts. Ervin Romans and Daniel Sakai.

Near the Coliseum BART Station, I see a huge billboard with the four officers’ photographs — erected just days before by the Police Officers’ Association. Not far away, the Oracle Arena where just 12 hours before, a final salute to the slain policemen by thousands of fellow cops who came from every corner of the United States.

For any reporter, this was one of those weeks that you’ll never forget. From the first call I got alerting me to two officers down in East Oakland to actually finding myself hearing a second round of gunshots that took the lives of two more officers — this was a gripping and tragic story that few would choose to tell but one that all would want to hear.

But in the digital webpages produced by the talented people that contribute to this website, you can see our decision to serve as those storytellers — being an eyewitness to the initial moments of chaos to the somber finale at the funeral services — and delivering that information to you.

No doubt the grieving and anger will continue in the days and weeks to come. So too will the struggle to turn the page on a week that few will ever forget.

– Tim Jue, California Beat

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I took a call that Saturday afternoon from a fellow Beat staffer.

Within minutes, I was putting up what our reporters in the field had heard online. Soon, I was also frantically trawling over what other news organizations had heard, trying to stay on top of the story and get information to our reporters in the field and our audience. My planned relaxing Saturday had turned into an almost unbelievably busy afternoon.

They say the Internet’s made it easier for information to get out. But in the case of a breaking news story, where the early information is at best incomplete and at worst wildly inaccurate, the flood of information — perhaps I should say words, not information — might make things even more confusing.

Nowhere did this become more apparent when reports started to come in that police officers had died. Shortly before 6 PM, when CBS5 television posted on its website a short note that all four of the police officers shot had died, we (and presumably every other news organization working the story) desperately tried to get confirmation of the news before reporting it. As the hour wore on, though, and more news organizations started reporting that the officers had died, it became less and less clear whether these reports represented independent confirmation of this news, or whether they were all just parroting CBS5.

Ultimately, I chose to report that CBS5 was reporting that all the officers had died — an unsatisfactory compromise, but the only viable one given that everyone else was reporting this online, but we had no confirmation of our own and no firm evidence of independent confirmation had emerged.

When the Oakland Tribune (whose reporter Harry Harris has the best Oakland Police sources in the business) reported an hour later that one of the officers was still clinging to life, a fact later confirmed at the 9 PM press conference, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. Here was the Internet as a giant echo chamber — one short note without much in the way of detail bouncing around the news sites and slowly hardening into an established, but incorrect, fact.

Not that I had much time to consider that thought at the moment, between adding new information from our reporters and others to the story on our website, rewriting what was already there into something approximating a coherent narrative, updating the Twitter feed with the interesting pieces 140 characters at a time, and answering questions from our reporters about how to get places, what other people were saying, and when the next press conference was.

Occasionally, technical problems got in the way — as when I discovered my sound drivers weren’t working just as the 9 PM Oakland Police press conference was getting underway!

By the end of the evening, even though I hadn’t left my desk, I was exhausted — and also surprised at how emotionally drained I was. I rarely feel much, if any, emotion when I’m following a news story, but somehow, this one hit closer to home. As the week wore on, and we covered the tributes and memorials, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

– Steven Luo, California Beat

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