In a Pulitzer-winning series, two National Fellows exposed the dark reality of data-driven policing

For years, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office in central Florida touted its “intelligence-led policing” program as a cutting-edge initiative to prevent future crime. But as a reporting team for the Tampa Bay Times discovered, the reality was a very different story.

Their series, “Targeted,” exposed how the Sheriff’s Office used a controversial computer algorithm to generate lists of people it considered most likely to break the law, often based on unspecified intelligence and arbitrary decisions. Then it sent deputies to their homes at all hours of the day and night, often without cause, to monitor and harass them. 

“For almost 10 years, no one really understood what was going on behind the scenes,” said reporter Neil Bedi, a Center for Health Journalism 2020 National Fellow who worked on the story with co-author Kathleen McGrory, a 2016 National Fellow. “That was part of the drive for us to look into it.” 

Their series led to a federal lawsuit against the county sheriff’s office, investigations by the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice, and bills in the state legislature to curb such policing practices. Ultimately, the program was shut down. The project, completed as part of Bedi’s 2020 National Fellowship, won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting.

Bedi and McGrory, both now at The New York Times, said the support, training and career boosts they received from the Center for Health Journalism proved essential to their project’s impact.

The pair had collaborated on projects before when they decided to turn their focus on the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. In 2019, they discovered a federal lawsuit brought by former deputies, who alleged that their superiors had ordered the deputies to make the lives of some residents so miserable that they would leave the county or sue the department.

The county’s powerful sheriff, Chris Nocco, promoted the program as a proactive approach to policing that would prevent future crimes. When the reporters requested an interview with the sheriff early in the investigation, his office declined. So, Bedi and McGrory filed dozens of requests for public records seeking to understand how the program worked. 

Among the key documents the reporters found was a manual describing how the program used an algorithm to identify targets based on their arrest histories, social networks and other unspecified data. Bedi, a former software developer, was able to use his computer science background to reverse engineer the algorithm, which helped the reporters identify the program’s likely targets. 

Bedi and McGrory started knocking on doors of these people and asking about their interactions with deputies. Early on, they began to see a similar pattern. Residents described how deputies showed up at their homes repeatedly, sometimes many 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,” McGrory said. “They might shine flashlights into the home.” They also wrote tickets for petty infractions, like having grass that was too long or a nonworking vehicle sitting in the driveway. 

In written responses to the reporters’ questions, the Sheriff’s Office defended the tactics as “basic law enforcement functions.” But with help from a Center for Health Journalism grant, the reporters were able to obtain body cam footage of deputies interacting with targeted residents, which told a different story. 

“It’s one thing to say someone was harassed by the police, but it’s another thing to actually watch the video and let the viewer draw that conclusion on their own,” McGrory said. “That was really impactful.” 

Most alarming was their discovery that the local school district was supplying the Sheriff’s Office with confidential student data — including grades, attendance and disciplinary records — to develop a list of middle and high school students identified as potential future criminals. This finding sparked outrage among the local PTA and eventually led to a U.S. Department of Education investigation. 

Both journalists credit the Center for Health Journalism for playing an important role in advancing their careers. McGrory, looking to develop new skills in investigative and data reporting, became a National Fellow in 2016. She used her fellowship to examine a spike in gun-related accidents among children in Florida. Her work on the project so impressed her editors at the Tampa Bay Times that they chose her to join the investigative team full time.

“If I hadn’t had a chance to work on that project with the Center, I don’t think any of this would have happened,” McGrory said. 

Four years later, as McGrory and Bedi were making progress on their “Targeted” project, COVID arrived and the project lost momentum as both reporters were drawn into pandemic coverage. In the summer 2020, McGrory suggested to Bedi that he apply for the National Fellowship as a way to jumpstart the project.

“The fellowship came at the perfect time,” Bedi said. “It really energized me and got the gears turning again even during this crazy time when we were all isolated.” In addition, he said the Center’s grant “helped us get public records (including the body cam footage) that otherwise might have been out of reach but were vital to the story.” 

Since then, Bedi and McGrory have moved on to investigative jobs at two of the nation’s most influential news outlets. After stints at ProPublica, both are now working for The New York Times, Bedi as a reporter on the Visual Investigations team and McGrory as an editor for the Times’ Local Investigations Fellowship program. Both also serve as members of the Center for Health Journalism’s Advisory Board.

“My involvement with the Center really turbocharged my career and enabled me to make the jump to longform reporting, something I had wanted to do for a long time,” McGrory said. “Since then, I’ve remained very active with the Center. I give a presentation during the fellowship week about how to manage your project and how to make it accessible. In doing that, I’ve met with dozens if not hundreds of fellows, and I see them all across the country at conferences. I love doing that work.”