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How the Tampa Bay Times nailed its Pulitzer-winning series on big-data policing

How the Tampa Bay Times nailed its Pulitzer-winning series on big-data policing

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For years, a central Florida sheriff’s office used an algorithm to determine which of its residents were most likely to commit future crimes, and then sent deputies to their homes at all hours of the day to monitor and harass them.

The initiative operated largely in secret.

That is, until a reporting team from the Tampa Bay Times started poking around.

Their series, “Targeted,” led to a federal lawsuit against the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and legislative proposals to curtail data-driven policing. It also won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. The two journalists, who completed the project as part of the 2020 National Fellowship, shared their investigative strategies Wednesday during a Center for Health Journalism webinar.

“This program that we looked into was almost 10 years old. It's just that no one really looked behind the curtain to figure out what was going on,” said one of the reporters, Neil Bedi, who now covers the federal government for ProPublica.

Bedi and former colleague Kathleen McGrory, deputy investigations editor for the Tampa Bay Times, had previously collaborated on projects that examined a deadly accident at a local power plant and an alarming death rate at a leading children’s hospital.

A couple years ago, they turned their focus to police accountability. They searched for federal lawsuits involving local law enforcement agencies, finding one where a former deputy alleged that a superior ordered him to make certain residents’ lives so miserable they would either leave the county or sue the department.

This was done, the former Pasco Sheriff’s deputy claimed, through a predictive-policing program that targeted residents based on factors such as their arrest history, past involvement as a suspect or victim of a crime, and social networks.

Early in the investigation, in late 2019, the Times reporters asked for an interview with the sheriff and other top officials, and were denied. They also started making numerous public records requests, asking for things like the list of residents who were targeted, dispatch reports and funding sources.

Some of the requests were slow to come; others were denied altogether, sometimes for legitimate reasons, such as including information pertaining to an ongoing criminal investigation. The department told the newspaper it would cost more than $300,000 for a year’s worth of emails. “It took us getting our lawyers involved to help shake the trees a bit,” McGrory said. They also narrowed their requests.

Along the way, they discovered that a local citizen journalist had been compiling a real-time database of police dispatch logs in the county.

“And we just got in the car and hit the road and started knocking on dozens of doors and just asking people what their interactions had been like with the deputies,” McGrory said. “Very early on, folks in all corners of the county were describing a very similar pattern.”

As McGrory explained it, “Deputies might show up at their homes, repeatedly, sometimes multiple times in a single day. They might surround the target’s home with police cars. They might knock on the door at 2 o'clock in the morning and wake everybody up in the house. They might shine flashlights into the home.”

The deputies often looked for minor infractions during their visits.

“It was also routine for deputies to either threaten the target or to actually go ahead and write them a code-enforcement citation for having grass that was too long or for having an errant trash bag or having a vehicle that was not operational sitting in their driveway,” McGrory said. “People said that they felt embarrassed, they felt harassed, and they just felt like there was nobody that they could turn to to complain about these very aggressive tactics.”

The Times also learned about an adjacent intelligence program that aimed to identify children at risk of criminal behaviors, using grades and school attendance records and child-welfare reports. Their parents and even the local school superintendents were unaware this was taking place.

The reporters said they gave the sheriff’s office ample time and opportunity to respond to their findings. That response eventually came in the form of a statement over 30 pages long that stood behind the program and accused the newspaper of cherry-picking examples and classifying normal law-enforcement functions as harassment.

“Deputies might show up at their homes, repeatedly, sometimes multiple times in a single day. They might surround the target’s home with police cars. They might knock on the door at 2 o'clock in the morning and wake everybody up in the house. They might shine flashlights into the home.”

The Times published the statement in full online and even fact-checked it. For instance, the department claimed that burglaries, larcenies and auto thefts had dropped as a result of its intelligence program. McGrory said those crimes had indeed declined but mirrored trends in surrounding counties that didn’t have predictive policing initiatives.

After the series began publishing last September, civil rights groups from around the country and state joined forces to condemn the program. Four of the targeted residents and a national public interest law firm filed a federal lawsuit against the sheriff’s office. The U.S. Department of Education started investigating the sheriff’s use of school data.

Bills to curb this type of policing in Florida were ultimately unsuccessful. The Times had previously written a story in December 2020 about how politically powerful the sheriff, Chris Nocco, is. “For a long time no one really questioned him, which only brought more urgency for us to take a look because as journalists, that's our job,” Bedi said.

The Times reporters noted that law enforcement agencies across the country use similar data-driven strategies, so reporters should watch for these types of stories in their coverage areas.

“If you find some programs that look interesting, start requesting manuals that explain how they work, internal documents that explain how deputies are taught to work with these programs. Start figuring out what this looks like behind the scenes, not what is released in press statements every now and then. We should also be requesting contracts with software companies that do this kind of work,” Bedi said.

“Keep an eye out for anything that looks interesting, that looks cutting-edge and high tech, and figure out how it's being used and how your law enforcement agencies are ensuring that people's civil rights are still being protected.”

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Watch the full presentation here: 

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