2015 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom finalist

Undue Force

Mark Puente, Algerina Perna, Greg Kohn, Emma Patti Harris, Dave Rosenthal, Adam Marton, Christopher T. Assaf, Paul McCardell

The Baltimore Sun

The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom


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About the Project

Baltimore residents periodically complained about heavy-handed police officers, but the government had not made a comprehensive examination of the problem. Reporter Mark Puente dug into the issue in the best journalistic tradition: through old-school, shoe-leather reporting. He spent months scouring Baltimore’s roughest neighborhoods for residents who had accused officers of brutality during arrests. The investigation revealed widespread allegations of police misconduct across Baltimore — an issue that gained international attention months later with the death of Freddie Gray.

Puente sifted through more than 150 court cases but hit a significant roadblock: Settlement agreements restricted plaintiffs from discussing details of their lawsuits with the public or the news media. By talking, a plaintiff risked losing as much as half of the settlement award – potentially tens of thousands of dollars.

Puente persisted in his reporting to obtain compelling narratives. He visited some homes multiple times, pleading for information from relatives. Some residents agreed to be interviewed but then canceled, fearing retaliation from police. He managed to piece together the information from court documents, letters, witness statements and other sources. He even persuaded one resident who had signed a settlement agreement to talk despite the financial risk.

Puente’s article, “Undue Force,” revealed that city officers had battered dozens of residents — resulting in broken bones, head trauma, organ failure and death — during questionable arrests. Victims generally were residents without criminal records: a 26-year-old accountant, a 65-year-old church deacon and an 87-year-old grandmother.

The article showed that the city had paid nearly $6 million in settlements and court judgments during the past few years – a hefty tab for taxpayers in the cash-strapped city. It also outlined the wider impact – a deep distrust of police in many neighborhoods, which created new problems for law enforcement.

The digital presentation of “Undue Force” added to the impact of Puente’s investigation with a visually gripping and interactive layout. Designed by Greg Kohn and Emma Patti Harris, it mixed the poignant photo and video journalism of Algerina Perna and Christopher T. Assaf with shocking mug shots of Baltimoreans who were allegedly beaten in police custody. Below those jarring images and the introduction to the story is an embedded video in which an older Baltimore woman describes the brutality she allegedly suffered at the hands of police.

The presentation also prominently features an interactive graphic showing the largest payouts Baltimore has made for settlements and court judgments in lawsuits accusing city officers of false arrests, false imprisonment and excessive force.

The uncluttered, responsive-design layout was optimized for viewing across all devices, making for easier reading, while elegantly interspersing photos, documents, pull quotes and other interactive elements throughout the story. For example, one interactive graphic showed what the money spent on settlements could have paid for: 43 renovated playgrounds, 72 resurfaced basketball courts or 124 new police officers.

Another article by Puente, included as supplemental material, revealed that police leaders and city attorneys were not keeping track of officers who faced repeated allegations of brutality. One officer had been sued five times, with a total cost to taxpayers of more than $624,000 in settlements and court judgments. A third article, published in April 2015, showed the city continued to pay out tens of thousands of dollars in settlements for lawsuits alleging brutality.

Results of The Baltimore Sun investigation stunned public officials and community activists, who were unaware of the scope of police brutality. It also triggered an immediate response on several levels of government.

Five days after Undue Force was published, Baltimore’s mayor and police commissioner announced that they were asking the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a comprehensive review of the Police Department. City police officials cited The Sun’s investigation as they released “Preventing Harm,” a reform plan designed to address brutality and other misconduct within the department. And police officials suspended the officer who was sued repeatedly over brutality allegations, after The Sun uncovered a video contradicting his account of an arrest. The video is available as supplemental material.

In the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death and the unrest that followed, The New York Times and The Washington Post editorial boards described the series as “a meticulously reported investigation” and “a shocking expose,” respectively. The work also was cited by numerous other national media including NPR, Huffington Post, The Atlantic and CNN.