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2014 Explanatory Reporting, Small Newsroom finalist

Oakland Police Beat

 

Finalist(s)
Abraham Hyatt, Susan Mernit

Organization
Oakland Police Beat

Award
Explanatory Reporting, Small Newsroom

Program
2014

Entry Links
Link 1
Link 2
Link 3

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About the Project

Oakland Police Beat is a data-driven police accountability project funded by The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and The Fund for Investigative Journalism. We’re a small team that has produced high-quality investigative reporting, analysis and data — and that has made that data freely available so that others can build off of our work. We launched on April 2, 2014.

The Oakland Police Department has a long reputation for internal dysfunction, a high number of officer involved shootings and ongoing allegations that its officers regularly use excessive force. Following a high-profile scandal in the early 2000s where more that 100 plaintiffs accused officers of beating, kidnapping and planting evidence on suspects, a federal judge mandated the department make sweeping reforms. A decade later, the department was still struggling to finish those reforms, and in late 2012 the judge took control of the OPD away from the city.

That’s when we began creating a one-of-a-kind project that explains how the OPD got to where it is today by investigating the officers involved. Using two decades of court, city and police department records, we created a database of those officers. For the first time, Oaklanders and others can learn more about the more than 500 officers we discovered who’ve been named in civil rights-related lawsuits.

Challenges
  • While we were a small team (five core members) of mostly part-time journalists operating on a very small budget, we were able to create a unique, multi-faceted site with content that has deeply resonated with Oakland residents.
  • Because of our limited resources we were not able to legally challenge record request denials made by the OPD. For instance, the department denied our request for individual officer awards data before 2007 because it claimed it did not keep those records before that date. Instead, we created an online tool that let us search through hard-to-find management reports for some of that information.
  • We discovered halfway through our reporting that a dataset of more than 1,300 lawsuits we had requested from the Oakland City Attorney’s office had incorrect data in it. The city gave us new data, which we found also contained mistakes. Identifying the problems significantly slowed our progress. In the end we used other public records to identify and correct the problematic data on our own.
  • Due to limited resources we were unable to create our database news app with common tools like Python or Ruby. Instead, we used an innovated approach that piggybacked our datasets onto the site’s existing WordPress database to create a highly functional search tool.
Results
  • Data/Transparency
  • We’ve publish our stories under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 License with an encouragement to “Steal our Data!” oaklandpolicebeat.com/steal-our-data. We’ve made all of our data available for download at oaklandpolicebeat.com/downloads
  • In aggregate, our “Data Dump” posts, dataset downloads and database searches are responsible for some of the top traffic on the site. Our stories and data have so far been used by Boston.com, Atlantic Media’s CityLabs, legal and activist-related sites, and lawyers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • The sourcing for the research in our largest stories can be found at oaklandpolicebeat.com/source-notes
Our investigative stories have found:
  • Since 1990, Oakland and private insurance carriers spent $74 million dollars to settle at least 417 lawsuits accusing its police officers of civil rights violations. That’s more than nearly any other California law enforcement agency and likely any other city of Oakland’s size in the nation.
  • The department’s most decorated officers have been involved in significantly more shootings and lawsuits involving allegations of brutality and other types of misconduct than officers who earned lesser awards.

Laudatory coverage of the project includes news and journalism outlets in the United States, China, France and Italy.