Investigating and reporting on police misconduct requires a complete and nuanced understanding of policing, the rules and regulations in effect and the community being policed.
Over the years, there are many examples of both winners and finalists honored in the Online Journalism Awards that have helped their communities to better understand policing and investigated police misconduct. In the current political climate, it’s no surprise that this realm of investigative journalism on police misconduct has the potential to carry a big impact for the community served, as well as other reporters hoping to follow in their footsteps in their own communities.
Examples of investigative journalism on police misconduct
This roundup includes some important investigative journalism pieces on policing and police misconduct for journalists reporting on similar stories. Each project offers insight into the reporting team’s method, tools and techniques, as well as a look at the challenges each team navigated and the lessons they learned along the way.
When ProPublica went about answering the question “How does accountability for NYPD officers really work?”, their investigative reporting turned into an unprecedented examination of how the NYPD largely polices itself.
The team was able to request and obtain NYPD discipline records during a brief window when they were publicly accessible. From those records, the team learned that the city looked into 3,000 allegations of police misconduct over the course of a year and substantiated only 73 of those allegations. Of those substantiated allegations, only nine officers suffered a severe punishment — loss of vacation days.
With live coverage and a series of articles, videos and maps, the New York Times chronicled the unrest and demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, including the violent response from police. Through their investigative reporting, Times journalists also covered the prevalence of police misconduct across the United States with a special focus on Minneapolis, where they found that police used force against Black people seven times more often than white people.
To accomplish this, they used a range of journalistic tools, including data, documents, interviews and videos. The Times also found ways to invite readers to participate in their reporting, helping them better understand the scope of the moment.
In a 16-month investigation ending in 2019, the NJ Advance Media collected and digitized police forms and reports to produce a comprehensive statewide database of police use of force in the United States. The resource allowed readers to view and search every use of force by both local officers and state troopers from 2012-2016, the most recent full year of data that was available at the time.
Upon analyzing the data, the team found that Black people were three times more likely to have police force used on them than white people. In addition, just 10% of officers accounted for 38% of all uses of police force.
To investigate police shootings in Los Angeles County, KPCC was able to create a database of police shootings and the circumstances behind the shootings. They compiled data through “declination memos,” letters from prosecutors to police or Sheriff’s officials explaining why they are declining to file a case.
Upon analysis, the team found that one in four people shot by police in the county was unarmed and dozens were suffering from mental illness. They also found that Black people were shot at three times their proportion in the population, and prosecutors had not filed charges against a police officer for an on-duty shooting in 15 years.
After a video of a Black man being ticketed for jaywalking in Jacksonville, Florida, went viral, Florida Times-Union and ProPublica investigated jaywalking ticketing practices in the city.
Compiling data from a range of local and state agencies, the team found disparities across every category of pedestrian ticket in the county and the ticketing in general to be racially disproportionate. When interviewing officers, reporters convinced the police to admit that enforcement was often an excuse for police to stop and question those they deemed suspicious of criminal activity.
A whistleblower came forward to report on the Chicago Police Department’s role in the city’s drug trade, and The Intercept dove into a complicated investigation. After three years and more than 150 hours of interviews, the team found evidence of massive corruption and institutional denial within the police department.
To uphold journalistic standards while telling a story that relies heavily on a single source that was profusely denied by officials, the team allowed their primary sources space to share their accounts, while keeping official denials present. This approach enabled readers to come to their own conclusions after being presented with both sides of the story.
In 2015, The Center for Public Integrity pulled together an interactive breakdown of the role of police in schools by state. They then narrowed the focus on Virginia, which was top of the list for the number of students being referred to police or courts by schools.
Their analysis revealed that children who are ethnic minorities and who have special needs are criminalized more often at school. They also found a shocking number of young children, under 10 years old, being charged by school police for offenses like disorderly conduct or assault. These charges could then lead to lifelong consequences for behavior that used to be handled in house by school principals and counselors.
To see additional examples of excellent investigative journalism, including work investigating police misconduct, check out the winners and finalists of this year’s Online Journalism Awards.
This post originally appeared in the ONA Weekly newsletter, issue 312. It has been updated with additional information and resources.