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Behind the Story: Tracking problem police officers in Florida
It was an unbelievable record for anyone, let alone a public employee. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that one Opa-Locka, Fla., officer had been:
“Fired five times and arrested three, he was charged with stealing a car, trying to board an airplane with a loaded gun and driving with a suspended license.…(He) split a man's lip with a head butt. He opened another man's head with a leg sweep and takedown. He spit in the face of a drunken, stumbling arrestee. One time, he smacked a juvenile so hard the boy's face was red and swollen the next day.”
Still, the officer kept his badge.
The story lead off “Unfit for Duty,” a nine-part series, reported by investigations editor Matthew Doig and police reporter Anthony Cormier. The series chronicled how law enforcement agencies throughout the state continued to employ officers with severe misconduct charges. The two did dozens of interviews and gathered more than 12,000 pages of documents for the series. The first step in their reporting was to analyze Florida's police misconduct database, which the state keeps in a Microsoft Access database. Doig and Cormier got the data through a public records request. They weren’t charged for the data and Doig called it “some of the cleanest data” he has ever worked with. They requested the data twice, first in March when their reporting started and again shortly before publication to have the most up-to-date information in the newspaper's searchable online database.
Doig explained during an interview with IRE the thought process behind the series and the techniques he and Cormier used to report it out.
Why did you do this series?
My colleague Anthony Cormier had gotten the disciplinary data before and wanted to do a story on it, but he didn’t have time then to tackle it. Anthony is a beat reporter covering cops. He requested the data again in March when we decided to look in to it. He had basically the holy grail of data — the state’s disciplinary data, which has every officer who had ever got in trouble in the state, what they were accused of and what happened.
We did this story the way we like to do stories. We tried to take on a complex issue and look at the problem as a whole and what's causing it.
How long did you work on this series?
It was pretty much eight straight months of work. He may have had some bylines from some shootings and I had some bank stories that I worked on, but 90-to-95 percent of the time we were working on this… It was probably two solid months of public records requests, data and document work.
I did most of the data work at first. (Cormier) didn't have experience working with databases. He went to (the 2011 IRE Conference in) Orlando last year, and I remember running in to him in a hallway and he said “I just learned Access. I’m dangerous now.”
It's still early, but what sort of feedback are you seeing?
We have had a ton of feedback already. Earlier this week we wrote a story how the governor’s office is going to investigate if there have been illegal appointments to the state panel that certifies officers. We have had a huge response from the law enforcement community, both current and active officers. On the comments board we’ll see some comments that are critical of the series, but from phone calls and e-mails we’re getting it has all been positive. I swear we’ve had over a dozen calls from officers saying “We have this guy in our department you’ve got to check out.” We’ve had cops tell us they knew that these problems existed and didn’t like it and were glad we wrote this.
When did you realize you had the story?
We knew from the get-go it was going to be big. The bosses aren’t inclined to give us eight months to work on a project if it’s going to be one 20-inch story. It was probably mid-October or so, after we had done all of our public records requests that we wrote up what the budget was going to look like. We followed that pretty closely. There were some pieces that we thought were going to be sidebars that turned out to be full stories. The union story wasn’t even on the budget. That turned into on a pretty key piece of the series.
How did that happen?
We like to do some initial interviews at the beginning of an investigation like this. We’re pretty ignorant of the system at the time and we like to get some initial feedback. When we’re doing that next round of interviews we’re as knowledgeable of the system as some of our sources. Doing those interviews we started asking questions, "Why is this happening? Why is that happening?" We were hearing more and more that the process was being taken over by the powerful law enforcement unions.
What types of documents or data did you use?
The misconduct database was the big thing. It had multiple tables in it.
Then there was a separate employee database, which was a state-wide database. It’s basically like a glorified rolodex. (The state) is in charge of certification, which is why they keep the database. There is a form that officers have to fill out if they change jobs or departments.
It is the cleanest set of data I have ever worked with. There was no big clean up with the data. Sometimes you get a data set and find out it has errors or wrong information. Everywhere we turned this data pointed us correctly.
We also got 30 or so department-level internal logs on some of the more high profile cases.
When we got the data I spent a week or more playing around with it – sorts and counts, which officers got written up the most number of times. Then I started looking at certain types of offenses, like “he had both a domestic violence and an excessive force.” From that I created a list of 150-200 officers. Once we had a nice healthy pool of targets we tried to find out more details on them by asking for the reports on the incidents.
We got the (misconduct reports) as paper and scanned them in. That was another thing Anthony learned at Orlando was DocumentCloud. We started the project before the IRE conference. When we did projects like this in the past we would basically make an Excel spreadsheet and I would put numbers on the pages of the documents. I would use the spreadsheet as a way to easily reference the documents. If you look at (Sgt. German) Bosque's file in DocumentCloud you’ll see there are numbers in the upper right hand corner…With DocumentCloud you don’t need to do that. I could just type something into the search field and find it immediately. It can be a little buggy, but the thing shaved hours if not days in terms of reporting time.
Where can other journalists find similar data sets? What advice do you have for someone looking into a similar topic?
The state data was ridiculously easy for us to get. We got it for free when we requested it in March and we got a fresh set of data three weeks before we wanted to publish, because we wanted to put the most up-to-date data online.
Getting records from local departments we had the kind of traditional problems you get with public records requests. Things like it was clearly public and they were saying we couldn’t have the records or the records weren't there. Some offices just completely blew us off.
There are going to be some agencies that won’t want to fill your requests. Just hound them for it. Make sure you call them out in the end. Florida has an excellent open records law. Doing this project exactly like this is probably impossible in some other states. I tried to get records in Wyoming for one of our officers who had been hired up there. They claimed that the law there was that they would only give up the (discipline) records if the officer agrees to it.
This was a case where the government had this wonderful, informative dataset and they weren’t using it at all except to compile the information. I remember talking to one person at an office and saying: “How could you guys not know some of this? In five minutes of (SQL) queries you know everything about these officers?” They basically said it wasn't their job. That left a huge opportunity for us.