As heated street protest and eye-witness videos brought police shootings to the center of a national debate last year, many news organizations tried to get around a lack of transparency about the scope of the problem by counting up deaths reported by the media.
In Los Angeles, we took another tact after police shootings seemed anecdotally to be rising. Even though the county’s 44 police agencies don’t all report shootings – and seldom report meaningful statistics about why they occur—Southern California Public Radio/KPCC was able to create a first-of-its kind database informing the public how many people were shot by police and, more importantly, the circumstances behind those shootings.
Among our findings: one in four people shot by police in Los Angeles County was unarmed and dozens said to be suffering from mental illness. Black people were shot at three times their proportion in the population. And prosecutors have not filed charges against a police officer for an on-duty shooting in 15 years.
Those facts, unknown until KPCC reported them, made national news – cited by the New York Times, the Guardian, NPR and others. They were even mentioned in an episode of the TV show Blackish (we were not credited, but it’s our statistic). The LAPD released new data hours after our story published in what we can only guess was an effort to appear more transparent. (When else do police agencies report data 11 months into the year?)
This work stands out in two key ways: For providing the first comprehensive database, now available to all citizens, of shootings over five years in L.A. County; and for excellence in storytelling that reached out to people on mobile devices, in person and through the airwaves to draw them into a crucial conversation about public safety.
Finding a source for the data was complicated. Los Angeles County is policed by more than 44 law enforcement agencies, where only some report any information at all on police shootings and rarely do those reports include details like whether the person was armed or suffering from mental illness.
Drawing on our deep experience reporting in Los Angeles, we had a bright idea about where we might get a more complete picture. We knew when prosecutors decline to file a case, they write a detailed letter to police or Sheriff’s officials explaining why. And we also knew that for more than a decade, the L.A. County District Attorney’s office has sent a prosecutor to all police shootings. So we requested all cases filed against police officers and all the “declination memos” on officer-involved shootings since 2010. There were hundreds of them.
Letters in hand, we went to work creating our own database from those narratives. This allowed us to unearth details about what lead to shootings and how officers reacted – and find patterns. This kind of reporting used to be the province of large legacy newspapers, but the erosion of those outlets has left a void that smaller nonprofits like KPCC are increasingly stepping up to fill.
Once we’d built the database and analyzed the data, we devoted a significant chunk of our newsroom to telling powerful radio and web stories, designing beautiful data slides, a Facebook video and even Twitter cards – reaching as broad an audience as we could to shed light and expand community discussion. The journalists who worked on the project held a community forum to talk about the findings and what they mean for Los Angeles. And we released the data (and District Attorney letters used to build it) to the public for further scrutiny.
Over two weeks in November 2015, “Officer Involved” took the audience past sensational accounts to a deeper exploration of on-duty police shootings – taking into account all points of view.
We told the story of Dexter Luckett, who was unarmed when a police officer shot him because he had dropped his hands – the most common explanation we found as to why police shoot the unarmed. We went back to the site of an officer-involved shooting with Sheriff’s Lt. Romeo Ingreso, who still relives his 1996 decision to shoot yet shows how lethal force is sometimes unavoidable in policing. And we told the story of Jazmnye Eng, a schizophrenic Cambodian immigrant killed by Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies at the psychiatric clinic where she had sought help.
And we brought key leaders on air to talk about trust and police shootings, including the L.A. Police Chief, former prosecutors and watchdogs over both the LAPD and Sheriff’s department.
Some of the details we reported had never been shared with the families of those who were killed. After KPCC aired “A Cry for Help,” the series installment about Eng and the role of mental illness in officer-involved shootings, the family wrote to our reporters:
“I am so grateful that you folks did the project to help communities understand and think about solutions to improve safety for communities and police,” wrote Nancy Eng, Jazmyne’s sister. “I also learned new information from your report that we did not know about the case.”
After our series launched, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck for the first time in 15 years recommended prosecution of a police officer for the shooting of Brandon Glenn, the one the incidents that led KPCC to launch the project. And the Los Angeles police commission followed with a sea change to shooting policy, requiring officers to avoid shootings and focus on de-escalation.
It is the most ambitious project this station has undertaken and it is ongoing. After the initial series, we followed with a story about a trend by L.A. Sheriff’s Deputies of shooting at unarmed people in moving cars, despite a policy against it. And we are currently analyzing district attorney letters from neighboring Orange and San Bernardino counties.