2014 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Large Newsroom finalist

Fugitives Next Door


About the Project

Across the United States, police and prosecutors are allowing more than 186,000 fugitives — including more than 4,000 accused rapists, robbers and even murderers — to escape justice merely by crossing a state border, a USA TODAY investigation by Reporter Brad Heath found. The decisions to let them go, almost always made in secret, have left dangerous criminals on the streets, their crimes unpunished, their victims outraged, and the public at risk.

Each fugitive’s case is chronicled in a confidential FBI database that police use to track outstanding warrants. In 186,873 cases, police indicated that they would not spend the time or money to retrieve the fugitive from another state, a process known as extradition – even if the fugitives are literally just across a bridge in the state next door. Heath’s analysis of more than 1.1 million warrants in the FBI database revealed that police in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Little Rock — all among the nation’s most dangerous big cities —won’t pursue more than 90% of felony suspects into other states. Police in Los Angeles and San Bernardino, Calif. will not extradite dozens of fugitives charged with rape or even murder.

In his second story in the series, Heath showed just how often these fugitives move on to commit horrific crimes in other states. A Florida fugitive was stopped by police six times in Tennessee but after Florida police refused each time to pick him up, he wound up murdering four people in Tennessee. At least seven Philadelphia fugitives have gone on to commit murder in other states, Heath’s reporting showed, and the city of Washington, D.C., has had to let more than 2,400 fugitives go when neighboring states wouldn’t pick them up. A third story chronicled the crimes committed by Lamont Pride who shot a man in North Carolina, fled to New York, where he was set free and wound up killing a New York police officer.

Heath’s reporting had immediate impact. Prosecutors in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Georgia and other states are now reconsidering – or, in many cases, reversing – decisions to let thousands of fugitives avoid arrest. In Philadelphia alone, officials have already approved extradition for “several hundred” felony warrants due to what Heath revealed. The head of the National District Attorneys Association has asked 40,000 prosecutors to audit all their felony warrants to make sure they aren’t allowed to escape by crossing a state border anymore.

As part of the extensive online package, Heath gathered the data for every community in the United States, enabling readers to use a “lookup” tool to type in a county name to check just how often local police aren’t pursuing fugitives across state lines. An animated video explains how the cumbersome extradition process works, requiring the approval of both states’ governors. And a detailed interactive map, with hundreds of data points, shows the diaspora of fugitives from Philadelphia who now live in other states, safely free from the law.

Getting access to all that data was a huge challenge. It took two separate FOIA requests just to get a heavily redacted batch of records from the FBI and the FBI only gave us enough data to look broadly at police agencies’ extradition practices – the records gave us nothing that would let us take the critical next step of identifying individual fugitives. To do that, we had to gather additional warrant databases from several states. That, too, posed challenges. In many states, law enforcement databases are categorically exempt from open records laws; in a few, officials told us that disclosing the data would be a crime. And some of the states that did provide data also redacted most of the identifying records.

Our examination of Philadelphia’s fugitives illustrates the challenges. When we asked for a copy of Pennsylvania’s statewide warrant database, the State Police responded with a file stripped of all identifying information except for a computer generated warrant number. Dozens of police chiefs and record officers told us the number was worthless – they didn’t know what it was and couldn’t use it to look up a case. Eventually, an official gave us a second extract containing agencies’ case numbers, but no other identifiers. But that was enough, because Pennsylvania’s online court docket system allows you to search using police report numbers. So we built a Python robot that gathered identifying data – in unwieldy PDFs – from tens of thousands of criminal cases (so many, in fact, that we’re now blocked from viewing the site at all and have to connect over the Tor network.)

The data were still a mess, so we used more scripts to clean them up. Just dealing with the typos in suspects’ last known city of residence took nearly 600 lines of Python. Other scripts helped us automate background checks on thousands of suspects, assess the probability that we’d be interested in them for storytelling purposes, and store the best candidates in an internal web application where we could document our deeper research.

Once the data challenges were resolved, the entire package was presented online using a new long-form story page for USA TODAY and Gannett that enables wide-screen presentation of interactives, videos, graphics and other digital assets. The page is optimized for mobile and tablet as well and features like the county-by-county “lookup” work easily on a smartphone or other mobile devices.

The new long-form page is hooked directly to our content management system. That means we can build presentations out of text, images, galleries, videos, etc. for all platforms without having to produce custom code, and without having to upend our internal workflow.

The page template is also flexible enough that we can modify the design or add new features through custom HTML embeds, again directly through the CMS. And it lets us add custom graphics and interactive elements through frames.