Investigating police takes collaboration and context

June 15, 2020 12:00

“Say their names” has been a common chant at protests across the country following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The killing of George Floyd was the catalyst for the last several weeks of widespread protests, but Floyd was not the first to die at the hands of police, nor even the most recent.

Though newsrooms have been scrambling to cover the breaking news of recent events, coverage of police misconduct is not new to many newsrooms either. As protests continue and attention turns to policy proposals, newsrooms can play a role in providing important context for community conversations. Several examples of 2020 Regional Murrow Award-winning journalism covered incidents of potential police misconduct. They show that collaboration and context are key to thorough reporting.

Of six Murrow-winning stories or series on police misconduct, five began with a single incident: a police shooting, reports of harassment within a police force, drinking at the station and two cases of violent arrest. All, including a series on an ongoing officer shortage, reveled larger, systemic issues with law enforcement agencies’ cultures and how complains against law enforcement are handled.

We talked to the reporters behind several of the Murrow-winning pieces to see how local newsrooms can hold agencies accountable and uncover the broader story.

Develop expertise inside your newsroom
Bret Jaspers, who reported for KJZZ News on a community meeting following a viral police video in Phoenix, isn’t primarily a criminal justice reporter but had done a previous series on policing for KJZZ. He says that experience had helped build sources for the breaking story, and recommended dedicating one or more reporters to covering criminal justice and policing.

Reporting on the topic consistently is key to developing the expertise, background knowledge and sources necessary to provide depth of reporting on police issues and to “allow your newsroom to offer something very important that goes beyond slogans,” he says. Jaspers also recommends hiring, developing and promoting journalists of color, another idea that is far from new but has taken on increased urgency as newsrooms reckon with overreliance on official narratives and missing perspectives on systemic racial inequality.

Karen Brown, a New England Public Media journalist who reported on an incident related to drinking at police headquarters, an ensuing charge of police brutality and a broader “culture of impunity” also suggested staying in touch consistently with a wide range of community sources, including:
  • Public defenders, defense attorneys and lawyers who have represented others suing for police misconduct.
  • Community groups and advocates.
  • Elected city officials.
  • Counsel for police officers involved in other cases who could speak to the broader police culture.
Collaborate within and outside the newsroom
Both Brown and Jeff Cohen at CT Public in Connecticut, who covered a fatal shooting by police, suggested collaboration as a way for small newsrooms to provide depth of coverage on police issues despite limited resources.

The local newspaper The Republican’s criminal justice reporter “covered some parts of this story rather extensively,” says Brown, “So I interviewed her for the story, and chose to build upon her coverage rather than redoing it.” Recognizing the broader local news landscape was a win for all, bringing more attention to the reporting by both newsrooms and providing the community a deeper look at the story.

At CT Public, Cohen says the newsroom collaborated internally with different members of the team focused on different angles of the fatal police shooting of Anthony Jose Vega Cruz during a traffic stop, which was both practical and benefited the coverage: “Bringing more people to the table meant bringing a more diverse group of brains to the conversation.”

Use FOI and data to look backwards and build history and context
All six Murrow-winning stories on potential police misconduct uncovered systemic issues with misconduct and discipline in the respective departments they examined. A WMAZ-TV investigation into the local effects of a nationwide officer shortage used data and FOI records to show that Georgia law enforcement agencies often hired officers despite a history of discipline, past domestic issues or a history of conduct-related resignations at past agencies.

In addition to developing relationships with sources, FOI records and data can be a good way to add context and demonstrate patterns or trends:
  • Remember cases can be handled by multiple agencies, so request records from related or oversight agencies as well as courts.
  • Look for publicly available data. CT Public obtained some records via FOI request, then “cross referenced with a publicly available database of traffic stops to demonstrate that the two officers involved in this incident made more traffic stops than most,” according to Cohen.
  • Request police overview board meeting minutes and civilian complaint board documents.
  • Check your state’s officer training, accreditation or licensing agencies. WMAZ used FOI to obtain internal investigation records and spoke with the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.
Find a state-by-state guide to police misconduct record access, compiled by WNYC, here.
Follow up is key
The stories reported in each of the Murrow-winning pieces were ongoing at the time they were submitted, and each outlet has continued to follow up.

New England Public Media’s Karen Brown says in one case involving more than a dozen officers from her story about drinking at the station, five have recently been reinstated to desk duty by the police commissioner, drawing criticism.

The officer who fatally shot Vega Cruz at a traffic stop was cleared of wrongdoing, has resigned from the force and is studying to become an EMT. CT Public has reported these developments, and recently re-aired an updated version of a documentary, Collision Course, it had also produced about Vega Cruz and the officer. When we asked if the experience covering the story in such depth had helped the team in recent coverage, Cohen said, “Without a doubt,” adding, “we, as a small team, understood that this story was about more than a fatal police shooting – it was about the quantifiable role of race in policing, and the systems that can lead some departments to disproportionately police people of color.”

None of these stories are finished, just as questions about the future of policing and dismantling systemic racism in our communities remain. Local newsrooms can play a role in facilitating community conversations about a better future when they confront their own challenges and limitations, work to provide context at a local level and persist in deeply reported follow up.

Murrow Monday is a regular series going behind the scenes of Murrow Award-winning journalism. 

Watch the stories discussed here:

Phoenix residents voice concerns after viral police video
KJZZ News, Phoenix, AZ
Hard News
Large Market Radio, Region 3

Fatal Police-Involved Shooting In Connecticut
CT Public, Hartford, CT
Continuing Coverage
Small Market Radio, Region 10

Testimony Raises Questions About Drinking By Police At Springfield, Mass., Headquarters
New England Public Media, Springfield, MA
Hard News
Small Market Radio, Region 10

Warning Lights: The Nationwide Officer Shortage Affects Central Georgia Police Departments
WMAZ-TV, Macon, GA
News Series
Small Market Television, Region 13

Miami-Dade Police Who Witnessed Violent Arrest Of Black Woman Say She Was Not Disorderly
WLRN News, Miami, FL
Hard News
Large Market Radio, Region 13
Discreditable Conduct - Sexual Harassment at the Vancouver Police Department
CTV Vancouver
Continuing Coverage
Large Market Television, Region 14