Since 1998, Tom Jackman ’82 has covered crime and courts for The Washington Post. Inspired by his Domer journalist father and uncle, the Virginia native came to Notre Dame despite its lack of a program in the subject. Not enough reporters he’d asked recommended journalism school, so he worked for The Observer because “that’s where you do actual journalism.”
It paid off — he became The Kansas City Times crime reporter in 1985 even though he had no experience with police or the law “other than an arrest for underage drinking at Lee’s Ribs in South Bend during Senior Week 1981.”
Jackman has reported on the gruesome case of Kansas City serial killer Bob Berdella (about which he wrote Rites of Burial, 1992) and the D.C. sniper. He led The Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning breaking news coverage of the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech and is now covering the criminal investigations of the January 6 U.S. Capitol riot.
And he has frequently reported on police killings. Last week’s conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd was a potential watershed moment in accountability for law enforcement.
“The push to reform American policing got another giant jolt,” Jackman said. “It’s going to be fascinating to see what works and what doesn’t, and whether it effectively reduces crime, police violence, or both.”
What has the beat taught you about policing and police killings specifically?
I’ve covered police killings for a long time, and the vast majority are justifiable. The police are protecting themselves or others from an immediate threat. That’s important to remember. But we now know that a significant percentage, maybe 20-30 percent, can be avoided. Well-trained officers can take steps to not shoot people. Body cameras and phone cameras show how some officers defuse things smartly, and others just blunder into unnecessary shootings. As the L.A. police chief told me last year, it’s hard to convince someone you’re there to help when you’re pointing a gun at them. Police kill about 1,000 people every year. With training, they can save hundreds of lives. We’ve seen a way to deescalate situations that works for police. I hope it will spread, and fewer people get killed. Since The Post started keeping a database of fatal police shootings in 2015, we haven’t seen a drop at all.
Recently I had a story on The Post’s front page headlined, “Baltimore’s ‘Tough on Crime’ Era Ends,” because the prosecutor announced they weren’t going to arrest anyone for drug possession, prostitution and other stuff anymore. All of this is part of trying a new approach to crime and equity, because the old way didn’t work. The massive shift in the conversation has really been historic and stunning to watch for someone who started covering cops in the 1980s.
What are some memorable stories you’ve covered?
I’ve most enjoyed the stories that have impact, that create change, in a good way. I wrote repeatedly about a Fairfax County officer who shot and killed an unarmed man in his own home, and many think that coverage eventually led to a manslaughter conviction for the officer. My coverage of the killing of an unarmed man by two U.S. Park Police officers is credited by some with leading to manslaughter indictments against the officers, with a trial now pending. A few years back, I wrote about a local Army soldier who was shot and killed by his own lieutenant in a friendly fire incident in Iraq, which the Army tried for years to cover up, including promoting the lieutenant. After our stories, the lieutenant was booted from the Army and his superiors were stopped from rising further.
How has the “fake news” atmosphere affected your work?
The problem with “fake news” is it makes some members of the public, and the government, less willing to speak with us, which is bad. They’ve been wrongly convinced that we have an agenda. Most reporters really don’t. They really just want to get a good story and get it right.
Mistrust of the media wasn’t a particularly new problem in law enforcement, because they’ve always been leery or hostile towards the press. We want information; often times they don’t want to give information. It would be great if police had a better appreciation of transparency. Some chiefs and departments do. Many do not.
You covered protests from Black Lives Matter to Stop the Steal. What did you learn?
The BLM protests in D.C. in May and June felt like the release of built-up anger and frustration over police treatment of minorities, fueled by new videos of people being killed by the police. Veteran protesters tried to stop people from throwing bottles or rocks at police lines, with some success, until the crowd fanned out into the city.
With Stop the Steal, it seemed like a group of freshly outraged people, with a new and different complaint not based on any evidence. In November and December, they came to our city just bent on destroying stuff with little explanation. On January 6, a larger crowd came with one specific purpose, which was to overturn an election they didn’t like. They had no evidence. They just didn’t like the result. They didn’t damage the city this time, instead they attacked the Capitol. They attacked cops. Though there were warnings, no one could really conceive that these protesters would violently assault the police and overrun the nation’s Capitol. So while BLM was years in the making, January 6 was a sudden eruption we didn’t see coming.
That day, I was the lead writer, gathering feeds from everyone on the scene at the Capitol, the White House and elsewhere around the city. I was keeping one eye on the TV and one eye constantly posting stories, adding photos and writing headlines for our nonstop live news feed on The Post website. It’s a pretty amazing way to keep up with a breaking story, and we’ve gotten pretty good at regularly posting the latest news. It was history, a sad part of history, but history.
Interview by Patrick Gallagher, who works for a statewide foundation in Aberdeen, South Dakota.