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2016 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom winner

Focus on Force

An Investigation In Use of Force by the Orlando Police Department

Winner(s)
Rene Stutzman, Charles Minshew, Andrew Gibson, Rich Pope and David Harris

Organization
Orlando Sentinel

Award
The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom

Program
2016

Entry Links
Link 1
Link 2
Link 3

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Judges comments

Manually transforming paper records into a database, as well as deep and committed reporting and storytelling.

About the Project

The Orlando Police Department has long had a reputation for using excessive force. We investigated, using department data and found that its officers used non-lethal force – hitting, kicking, pepper spray, stun guns, etc. – at a far higher rate than other similarly-sized departments. From Jan. 1, 2010, to Dec. 31, 2014, Orlando officers injured 1,900 people. During that same period the city or its insurer paid $3.6 million to resolve excessive force claims – more than double the payouts of other cities that are the same size.

Ours was a 10-month investigation. Getting the department to surrender the data was difficult. We were initially told that it could not provide us the data, a compilation of information about each of the more than 3,100 incident in which an officer used force. It includes such things as the name of the officer, name of the offender, the date and time of the incident, the type of force used, the race of the offender and officer, whether anyone was injured.

After weeks of negotiations, a city attorney told us the city could provide the information but it would cost us $10,000. We then called the company that provided the police department with the software that it uses and were able to show the city that what we needed would be relatively easy for their personnel to compile. In the end, we paid about $500 for five years worth of data.

The city, though, provided it on sheets of paper, so we had to convert it to digital form. We did that by working in two-person teams and hired extra help: four college students.

We then discovered more than 100 missing cases and used other public sources, such as the Orange County clerk of courts criminal files, to fill in the holes.

Once the data was completed, we analyzed it and published three stories, seven vignettes of people who’d been injured by officers, four videos, two databases and an interactive map. One database was an edited version of what the department provided us. It allowed members of the public to look at each incident in which the department used force or to search the database by address, officer name or type of force used.

The second database we put online was based on another set of data we collected: Department payouts for excessive force claims. We collected that data from city and court records, used the information in the stories we published then published that database, allowing readers to look at individual cases in which the city paid damages because of excessive force.

Our findings revealed that 29 officers – or 5 percent of the police force – accounted for 25 percent of all uses of force. Those officers were involved in incidents that injured more than 700 people.

We also found that the department’s internal affairs division never investigated incidents of excessive force for which the city paid more than $1 million in claims.

In addition, we discovered that the department’s “early intervention program,” which flags officers who use force five times in three months or 12 times in a year, failed to identify twelve of the agency’s most violent officers.

Our package of stories had a major impact. In January, Orlando Police Chief John Mina issued a department-wide directive, ordering officers to use “only the minimal amount of force necessary.” The agency also reassigned some officers away from high-stress assignments and gave more emphasis to training officers in how to de-escalate confrontations.

Byron Brooks, Orlando’s chief administrative officer, told the Sentinel that the city “had a responsibility to look at” information we uncovered.

In 2015, the number of times Orlando officers used force was down 16 percent from the year before.

More broadly, the city of Orlando has now published a great deal more information and data related to the police department, including use of force data going back to 2009. The change has made it easier for us – and the public – to retrieve information about how officers use of force as well as crime in the city of Orlando.