Wendy Glauser
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The Thin Blue Line

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Nick Pron is convinced he's found the balance between being too friendly with the cops and too critical of them. Judging by the number of cops and journalists who no longer speak to him, he's succeeded

I first meet Nick Pron outside the police tribunal room at Toronto Police Headquarters. He is dressed in black and his six-foot-seven frame towers above me. He has intense green eyes and buzzed silver hair and he smiles an easy smile. We introduce ourselves and he tells me to turn off my cellphone, joking, “to save both of us the embarrassment.” He swings open the courtroom door and slides into a chair in the middle of the back row, whispering “good mornings” to the arriving journalists.

To Pron’s right sit the people from Professional Standards, the police department responsible for investigating internal complaints against officers, including a prosecutor named George Cowley, for whom Pron testified when Cowley himself faced the tribunal in the early 1990s. (Cowley was being investigated for failing to stop the press from photographing a prisoner, but was later acquitted. Pron had testified that Cowley hadn’t stood a chance against himself and two other reporters.) To Pron’s left sits the family of Mike McCormack, a Toronto police officer facing charges under the Police Services Act for his alleged connections to a shady car dealer. Having covered the police beat since McCormack’s father, William, was chief, Pron knows the family well.

“Very rarely does a reporter know both the prosecutor and the defendant,” The Toronto Star crime reporter admits. “I just feel awkward because, as a journalist, I’m not supposed to care one way or another.” He doesn’t elaborate, but he emails me the next day, writing, “I’m flattered you want to write about me and I probably said way more than I should have said.” I infer that the flattery of being profiled overrode his normal reserve. He forgot I had the power to make public his private vulnerabilities. He forgot that we had our roles – that I was the journalist and he the subject.

It wouldn’t be the last time. As we talk, the 56-year-old reporter often drifts from passive subject into the role of storyteller, entertainer, and mentor. After I riled up the Star‘s senior staff by suggesting Pron was passed over on a promotion to investigative reporter over a decade ago (as one of Pron’s coworkers implied), Pron reassures me by saying, “Hey, you don’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.” Pron is open, rambling, and often confessional with me, revealing more about himself in five minutes than the other crime reporters I interview reveal in an hour. It’s this congenial side of Pron I see most often. While his height gives him an intimidating presence, he works at making people comfortable. He slouches forward when he sits and he smiles often. He greets people with a joke and chuckles at their response. He is easygoing and straightforward, the kind of person the cops like to play pranks on – and drink beer with.

But over the next few months, I catch a different glint in Pron’s eye. He gets edgy, defensive, and he starts to backpedal. He wonders if my article might accuse him of being too close to the cops. He’s suddenly unsure I’ll treat the stories he’s told me with the appropriate sensitivity. He wants to know what the police officers I interview say about him – “Did he say what side he thought I was on, whether I was pro-police or anti-police?” He wants to know what his competitors are saying – “See, they’re not even talking to you. They’re going to think I’ve got a screw loose for talking to you.”

Pron is not good at toeing the line, which is especially troublesome for someone who has conservative views on crime and punishment and writes for a small-l liberal paper. While he’s adjusted to the stiff and sombre air of the courts after covering the police beat for almost 20 years, he hasn’t completely shaken the idea that crime reporting is for the tough and brazen – for those with a penchant for booze and pranks, a strong stomach for blood, and a belief that the rules don’t always apply to them. Perhaps it is this old-school style that gives Pron his confident charm, a swagger so convincing many don’t realize that the stress of juggling both office and police politics gets to him. As someone who has partied with many of the police officers he’s reporting on, Pron faces critics both in newsrooms for being pro-police and at police headquarters for reporting too negatively. These days, getting the story isn’t as easy, or as fun, as it once was.

Born to working-class parents in Winnipeg, Pron got his first hint of the reporter’s life from his mother, who worked as a cleaning lady at the now-defunct Tribune. “Her stories of the newsroom made me think when I was growing up, ‘Wow, what a neat job – the drinking, the fighting, the arguing, the boozing,'” Pron says. Halfway through his master’s in sociology at the University of Manitoba, Pron decided to enroll in Ryerson University’s graduate journalism program. In his first year at Ryerson, Pron and another classmate had an opportunity to go to New York to cover a United Nations meeting. Realizing it would take two or three days to secure press credentials, Pron decided to instead write about walking through Central Park at night, a dangerous endeavour in 1975, when gang and drug crime were rampant. “I wasn’t going to take a weapon, but as I walked by Lasker Pool I picked up a stick and slid it up my sleeve,” he wrote. “To make myself look tougher I dabbed some mud on my face and pulled up my collar.” The story ran in the centrefold of theRyersonian, and Pron thinks it helped him land a job at the Star after his first year. “The other student and I got into a fight at a party,” laughs Pron. “He accused me of thinking I was Hemingway.”

The glory was short-lived because the Star soon placed Pron on the crime beat, then considered “the lowest of the low.” At the time, the Star only had a few scanners, and Pron’s editor often asked him why he had missed a story the more crime-centric Sun had run. Pron kept telling his editor heneeded more scanners to compete. The desk he shared with another reporter was soon so noisy that walls were built around it, leading to the establishment of the “radio room” that’s now infamous among generations of interns. Pron went on to cover Toronto’s cocaine busts in the 1980s and cowrote a book with Star reporter Kevin Donovan on “The Body-Parts Killer,” Rui-Wei Pan, who scattered his girlfriend’s body parts along a highway west of Kingston.

Copies of that book, Crime Story, sit on the shelves in Pron’s cubicle beside copies of his contentious second book, Lethal Marriage, which quotes, verbatim, much of the video transcripts of the Bernardo/ Homolka murder trials. “The public has the right to know all the gruesome aspects of this case before there’s any debate on whether Bernardo should ever be released,” Pron writes in his author’s note. Those gruesome aspects include the possibility that a victim was “aroused by the deft tongue movements of her more experienced captor,” as well as Bernardo’s macabre comments on the lightness of another victim’s decapitated head. When I ask Pron how he responds to the criticisms that his book went too far, he says, “I just wrote what came out in court.” Still, of the three major accounts of the Bernardo murder trials, which also include Deadly Innocence by Alan Cairns and Scott Burnside, and Invisible Darkness by Stephen Williams, Pron’s was the only one to be removed from the St. Catharines public library after appeals from the mother of one of the victims and the Niagara Regional Police. Though the book was a bestseller, Pron tells me he never wanted to write it, but his publisher begged him to. It’s perplexing, then, to see the book displayed in front of him.

The rest of the décor is equally confusing, though I assume it serves as some kind of motivation. Pron has hung pictures of blood-splattered crime scenes and Colombian drug lords, Paul Bernardo’s head shot, and a twisted prayer from serial killer Christian Magee. Perhaps the most surprising accessory is a sign that reads, “The secret to success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” The adage seems incongruous with the adrenalin-pumping, bravado-rousing world Pron presented to my class four years ago during a guest lecture on crime reporting. But then, it might serve as a reminder that this isn’t the world portrayed in his favourite cop movie, L.A. Confidential. Pron still must contend with Star politics.

It’s a difficult task for someone who’s given to shooting his mouth off in defensive rages. Earlier this year, it took all of Pron’s social graces not to tell off Williams while covering his trial. (Williams pled guilty for violating a court order after publishing names of Bernardo’s rape victims on a website.) During a media scrum before the trial, Williams had suggested he’d been singled out by the police because his book was the one most critical of their investigation. “Nick, you published three banned names in your book,” Williams said. Caught off guard and infuriated by the comment, Pron played it cool as the attention of the other journalists turned to him: “Whoops,” he smiled. Later, Pron told me he could have started an argument with Williams, but chose not to berate him on his day in court (after all, the police investigation into Lethal Marriage several years ago concluded Pron didn’t break the publication ban). Still, just as I start to think Pron’s belligerence is softening, he emails to say he’s contemplating suing Williams for defamation – not for money (“They don’t have any and I don’t want their money”), but for a public apology.

Pron has a quick temper. When a juror from the Bernardo trial went on a radio show and denounced him as a pervert for writing his book, Pron asked another juror to pass along the following message: “What you said is slander. If you pull something like that again, I’ll sue you. I’ll take your house; I’ll take your car; I’ll take the toy from your kid’s hands.” Pron reiterates, “The thing that really upset me was she said that I must have really enjoyed writing that book. I didn’t even want to write the fucking thing.”

Still, Pron says, “Bernardo changed everything.” The Star‘s Tracey Tyler hasn’t talked to Pron since he covered the Bernardo case, even though she shares the tiny Toronto courtroom office with him. Pron recalls one argument between the two resulting in him kicking a newsroom chair a few feet in the air. “It’s probably my fault; I probably overreacted,” Pron says now. Pron also doesn’t speak with the Sun‘s Cairns, who was critical of Lethal Marriage. Since both Cairns and Tyler refuse to speak to me, I can only guess that after each had criticized Pron, he’d responded with a vengeance.

While Pron has incensed his share of reporters, he’s fared better among the police, where the political rules are more clear-cut. Early on in his career, Pron was warned by a senior police officer, “You only get one chance to fuck me over.” Pron knew that if he leaked confidential information about an investigation or disclosed his source, he would never get an interview with that police officer – nor most of the cops who work with that police officer – again. Pron gained the trust of some officers early on when he declined to print a bogus story the police had fed him during a night out drinking. “After that, I was ‘good people,'” Pron laughs. Later on, Pron would visit the cops at their office after his shift, sometimes taking the gift of a laminated copy of a story he’d written about them.

Because police feel they can trust him, Pron is often given more information than other journalists, though he can report little of it. He tells me that once, while drinking with the cops, he found out that a suicide attempt he had written about a few months earlier had actually been a couple of cops threatening to push a thief off a rooftop. When I ask him why he didn’t run the real story, he says simply, “I’d be screwed. No one would talk to me.”

Back “before Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” as Pron puts it, alcohol consumption was a common way for cops to unwind after work, and Pron was one of the few reporters cops would trust to drink with them. A common hangout was the Monarch Tavern, a second-floor dive hidden in a residential neighbourhood west of downtown Toronto. Although Pron hasn’t been to the Monarch in years, a police officer friend of his recently invited him there for lunch and Pron agrees to let me come along. In keeping with tradition, Pron buys everyone hot veal sandwiches from the separately owned deli below and takes them upstairs to the pub.

“Oh God, it’s so bright in here,” Pron moans when he reaches the top of the staircase and notices the blinds that used to cover every window are gone. “I think they cleaned the carpets too! God, I hate it,” Pron says. He’s equally dismayed when he finds out another old police watering hole is now an oyster bar.

Pron and his friend tell me the Monarch used to be filled with Toronto cops, and that due to restrictions in Ontario’s old liquor laws, women were not allowed to drink in the Monarch’s upstairs room. “I was kind of worried. I thought maybe they still didn’t allow broads up here,” Pron laughs. Over draft beer, Pron and the police officer talk almost in code, throwing out names and switching from one topic to another without warning, chuckling at inside jokes while I smile warily. At one point in the conversation, Pron tells the officer that he doesn’t think he’ll be covering any more police corruption cases, and his tone suggests the decision wasn’t his own.

When I call John Ferri, Pron’s editor, to ask if Pron had indeed been pulled off corruption trials, I’m told, “It’s not that we’re taking him off the corruption cases, it’s that we’re not putting him on them.” Ferri explained that the Star decided to only have one reporter on the major corruption trials, and that he wanted to keep Pron on other important criminal cases, like murder trials. He adds that although Pron covered McCormack’s corruption charge, it wasn’t considered criminal, and was held in the police tribunal room rather than in a courtroom. The more serious corruption trials, a slew of which will go through the criminal courts in 2005, hadn’t yet begun at the time of our interview. So while Pron won’t be covering the upcoming criminal corruption trials, it’s not as though he had covered them in the first place, Ferri says.

That’s not how Pron sees it. Although the trials haven’t started yet, Pron did report on many of these major corruption cases when charges were initially laid last year, and thought he’d be a shoo-in for the trials. So when I ask him what he thinks of the Star‘s decision to have John Duncanson cover all of the trials, he scowls and turns away: “No comment.”

Pron won’t admit it outright, but I suspect the Star‘s decision played a part in his month-long stress leave at the end of 2004. Though I press him on the subject, Pron’s explanations for the leave remain vague: “All I can tell you is that I’m on sick leave”; “You can just say one too many murder trials sent me over the edge”; “Twenty-five years of crime writing takes its toll on a person.” Pron’s uncharacteristic tight-lipped behaviour isn’t the only reason I suspect politics are at play. In unrelated conversations, Pron’s admitted he’s “not good at politics,” and Donovan told me,”The Star hasn’t treated Pron as well as they should have. The Star doesn’t like personalities.”

The decision to assign Duncanson, rather than Pron, to the corruption trials might well have more to do with appearances than anything else. Pron’s interviewing tactics, though effective, are not always by the book. He interviews cops off the record, never uses a tape recorder, and rarely writes anything down. When a police officer says something he wants to use, he asks, “Can I quote you on that?” and proceeds accordingly.

Off-the-record interviewing is a technique employed by other reporters on the police beat, according to police lawyer Peter Brauti, but it’s not one all reporters agree with. When I ask the Globe‘s Christie Blatchford if she interviews police differently than others, she snaps sardonically, “Yeah, I get naked first.” And the Sun‘s Sam Pazzano, though not specifying if he’s talking about Pron, says, “The whole arm-around-the-shoulder thing is disingenuous. You don’t have to be everybody’s best friend. You just have to be fair and accurate and everybody will talk to you.”

Carleton University’s journalism ethics professor Klaus Pohle agrees, arguing sources should be kept at arm’s length. “When people are your friends, you’re much more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt than when you’re new, fresh, and eager,” he says. Pohle allows that the “atmosphere of secrecy” adopted by the “quasi-military organization” of the police makes it difficult for reporters to get information through traditional interviewing methods, but he maintains that honing friendships with police is neither a necessary nor ethical tactic: “There’s a difference between being trusted by your sources and being friends with your sources,” he says.

Still, it’s perhaps unfair to judge Pron’s reporting based on the standards of a professor who’s never covered the police beat. So in seeking a practical and unbiased opinion, I call freelance crime reporter James Dubro, who is neither friends with Pron nor his competitor. Dubro almost never socializes with police beyond interviews, and says he deliberately avoids friendships with police out of concern that he would face a conflict of interest. But judging from Pron’s articles, Dubro doesn’t agree with the idea that Pron has crossed over. “He’s a journalist first,” he says, pointing out that Pron has written many stories critical of the police. Pron had his tires slashed and “Fuck you” carved into the side of his car soon after he wrote a controversial story about a cop. The McCormacks were also unhappy with Pron’s coverage of their son’s trial. And Pron recently angered a longtime source, police lawyer Gary Clewley, for reporting on a case that Clewley was handling.

Pron himself launches into a defensive rant after a cop I had interviewed told him my angle is that he’s “cozying up with the police, practically climbing into bed with them.” During the outburst, Pron informs me the police brought him before the press council because they were upset about the almost 40 stories he had written about coke-addicted Gardner Myers, who choked to death while in police custody. The press council supported one of the police complaints related to accuracy: “They dined on that for months: ‘We got you good, Pron!'” Pron laughs. “It’s quite a little game you play with them.”

Pron’s description of his dealings with cops as a game is an apt one. A journalist’s standing among members of the force can change so quickly that the whole journalist-cop rapport seems largely artificial. But Pron is a quick-change artist – one moment the old buddy and the next the detached critic. The dramatic shift is exemplified by Pron’s dealings with Rick McIntosh before and after his corruption charges were laid. Upon hearing about the charges, Pron staked out McIntosh’s house to get a quote. The usual jovial repartee between friends quickly turned sombre and tense.

“I can’t believe you’re out here doing this,” McIntosh said as he climbed out of his car and saw Pron waiting for him.

“Yeah, well, I can’t fucking believe it either, but here I am. You wanna talk?”

McIntosh didn’t want to talk, and the two friends awkwardly shook hands goodbye. They haven’t talked since that meeting.

While the transition from comrade to critic would be difficult for others to make (which is why most crime journalists either refuse to befriend officers or end up functioning as force cheerleaders), it’s one that Pron seems used to. It’s an unnerving skill I witness firsthand: the day before we visit the Monarch, Pron writes in an email that he thinks it was a mistake to trust me, wonders if I’m being malicious, and says he’s not sure taking me to the Monarch is a good idea. But after we’ve discussed his concerns, namely that I’m trying to make him look more like a cop crony than a reporter, he agrees to meet me again, the next day sneaking up behind me as I wait at our meeting spot: “Lookin’ for someone?” he quips. He’s easy to forgive.

The more I get to know Pron, the more I realize his sometimes exasperating suspicion is a consequence of being in the business for so long. Once a self-described “bleeding-heart liberal,” Pron’s years on the crime beat have led him to see the justice system as too lenient. He tells me about a police officer who decided to teach a stalker a lesson by shoving his head through a nearby window. “The cop said, ‘I’m gonna pull a 117 on you. It’s called sudden death! You, falling to the ground. You, suddenly dead!'” Pron recounts, clarifying that code 117 was fictitious. While assuring me it’s rare that police dole out their own form of justice, and that the incident in question happened many years ago, he seems pleased with the outcome. “He never bugged the girl again,” he says. “She was happier than hell, as I would have been if that were my daughter.”

Aside from adopting many of the cops’ conservative views, Pron has also picked up the tough-talking patter of the old guard of police officers. He swears often and uses jargon like “M.I.” for mentally ill and “D.O.” for dangerous offender. He calls women “hon” or “dear,” depending on their age, and men “buddy” or “sir.” He refers to most criminals as “fucks.” And when he calls a cop, the conversation is full of relaxed, easy banter. When I ask him for the number of a police officer, Pron calls him and quips, “There’s an attractive, young girl here asking about you. Something about a baby?” Pron also takes cops’ practical jokes good-naturedly. Pron’s Monarch Tavern initiation involved his police buddies forcing him to drink beer squirted out of a fake penis.

Pron tells me the reason he likes crime writing is because he appreciates cop humour. “You wouldn’t get that on any other beat. Like, sports? Life? C’mon.” When I ask Pron why he’s remained on the crime beat for so long, he says, “It’s the characters, the guys you meet afterward. I’ve had cops over at my house holding my son when he was just a baby, and I’ve been invited to their houses. You see a side of people that you never really see.”

Pron is at ease around cops. He doesn’t have to worry that the cops will take his brash humour personally. Journalists, on the other hand, “are some of the thinnest-skinned people you’ll ever meet,” according to Pron. I sense Pron’s cheekiness, once referred to by Blatchford as “blowing smoke out of his ass,” doesn’t fare well among many crime journalists, who already have to deal with the insults hurled at them by anguished families and agitated police. (“Why don’t you write about Blatchford? I’m sure her ego could use a little stroking,” he once joked to me as Blatchford stood scowling two feet away.)

Still, there’s no shortage of reporters who respect Pron. The Star‘s Dale Anne Freed says, “Nick has a brilliant sense of analysis.” Donovan says he’s “never laughed so hard in his life” as he did while writing Crime Storywith Pron. And Jim Wilkes tells me Pron, who lives with his wife and teenage son, “strives for excellence, not only in his reporting, but as a husband and a father.”

Despite his temper, Pron can also be compassionate. He once had to interview a mother whose six-year-old son had been killed crossing the road after his school bus had dropped him off on the opposite side of the street. While the bus once turned around to drop off the boy in front of his house, it had stopped doing so in an effort to save time and money. As Pron recounts the tragedy, he squints as if he still can’t comprehend it. “I had to go talk to this woman whose son had died because of budget cuts… because of fucking budget cuts,” he says. “People think you get desensitized to this. You don’t. You never do.”

Similarly, while Pron laughs over the old newsroom joke, “How terrible they lost their only child, but what a great front-page story,” he also says the Farah Khan case made him never want to cover another child murder trial. “In one chilling account of her slaying, jurors heard that he [Muhammad Arsal Khan] and Fatima chased the terrified child around their basement apartment, beating her with fists and a rolling pin before the two grabbed her and smashed her head into a coffee table, knocking her senseless,” Pron wrote in his front-page Star story.

Witnessing the human suffering behind crime often requires great inner strength, but it can also draw out a person’s weaknesses – something Pron learned after being invited to a “choir practice” 15 years ago. (The practice was once a common way for cops to de-stress. They’d gather in a remote area of town, pass around alcohol, and vent.) When one of the cops realized Pron was a journalist, he started ripping into him. “Every time he thought of something he didn’t like about the Star or reporters, he’d tell me,” Pron says. The officer drove home that night and was arrested for an impaired driving violation. He vanished shortly thereafter, only to be found dead weeks later in a secluded forest, having shot himself in the mouth.

“He was leaned up against a tree, and by the time they found him, the gun had fallen into his rotting corpse. I think about him a lot,” Pron says. And I don’t catch any fake sincerity in his voice.

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