Geoff Grammer, crime reporter for the Santa Fe New Mexican, visited the Native American journalism class on Oct. 19 to share his thoughts and experiences covering the police beat.
“There’s not a beat I’d rather do than crime.”
That’s how Santa Fe native and New Mexican reporter Geoff Grammer feels about his chosen line of work. He’s covered some hairy stories, intra-family murder and child kidnapping among them. Grammer says it’s the day-to-day excitement that keeps him on the beat. But he didn’t offer much more than that as a clear reason why he covers crime. I suspect it goes deeper. I think it has something to do with butting up against the extremes in human behavior and witnessing that first hand.
This summer Grammer covered a story about the tragic neglect and death of a child. Many people are to blame. The parents, who are separated, the mother and her boyfriend who are charged with abuse and murder, the father who saw it coming, and the New Mexico child welfare agency that received complaints of abuse, yet failed to take action. In all the years Grammer’s covered crime””over ten””this is the first story that really got to him. Grammer is a recent father, and crime against children hits close to home.
The crime beat has changed for Grammer. It was different right out of college in the early aughts. Covering crime didn’t have all the emotional baggage for Grammer that it does now. “The people behind the stories weren’t as real then as they are now,” said Grammer. Just out of college you want to get your feet wet””crime is often an entry-level beat””and trolling the police reports every day was like reading fiction. But now the beat is different, a daily reminder of the mutable line of violence that floats in and out of our lives.
A self described “sports guy,” Grammer is stocky, goateed. You can hear a hint of the Santa Fe accent in his voice, Spanish in the vowels. He likes covering sports, and took a break from crime to cover sports in Arizona before returning to the New Mexican a few years ago. But there’s something about sports that echoes crime; a controlled violence on an immaculate grass field or hardwood vaneer. So maybe Grammer didn’t quite escape.
He’s a reporter by trade, and knows the trade well. “Developing sources is the most important thing in journalism,” said Grammer. “It’s about making that extra phone call and getting that off-record info that might not even get into your piece, but that makes it a story.” And he gets it by being nice. At least Grammer differentiates himself from more aggressive reporters who yell “freedom of information” into the phone receiver with the police chief on the other end.
Still, Grammer knows the best information, what makes a story, is not in the police records or court documents. “The bad guy has a story, too,” he said.
This has led him to an understanding. An understanding that goes against what a reporter does. A reporter tells a story. A story has a beginning, middle””but what if it doesn’t have an end? Grammer’s first big story out of college was on a missing child from Santa Fe. A Robbie Romero who disappeared as a boy. Suspects included family members. This summer the story flared up again, the result of someone claiming to be Romero living in Santa Fe. National media””NBC and others””came to town. Grammer was interviewed. It ended up being a false alarm””the boy wasn’t Robbie reincarnated.
This troubles Grammer, but leads to something else, too. “I realized there’s not always going to be an answer to your story,” he said. Sometimes a story, no matter what we as writers do about it, doesn’t have an ending. But if Grammer is any example, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep looking for it””just make that extra phone call.