Pulitzer Prize winners Neil Bedi and Kathleen McGrory discuss 'Targeted'

Published on
June 24, 2021

Last week, 2020 National Fellow Neil Bedi and 2016 National Fellow Kathleen McGrory won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting for “Targeted,” their hard-hitting Tampa Bay Times investigation into controversial practices by the Pasco, Florida Sheriff’s Office. The team revealed that Sheriff Chris Nocco was using a data-driven policing program to monitor and harass residents it judged as “potential criminals” — before a crime was ever committed.

Center for Health Journalism Community Editor Chinyere Amobi caught up with Bedi, now covering the federal government at ProPublica, and McGrory over Zoom to discuss how the investigative duo approached their award-winning series, and share tips on how reporters can conduct similar investigations in their region. 

Q. What was the central finding of your reporting?

Kathleen McGrory: This series examined a secretive intelligence operation that was being run by the sheriff in Pasco County, Florida. What our reporting found was that the sheriff's office was using data to create a list of individuals it believed could become criminals in the future, then sending deputies to harass and monitor those individuals and their families. Another important finding was that this agency was also using data from the local school system, such as student grades, attendance records, and discipline records, to cobble together a separate list of schoolchildren that it believed could become future criminals.

Q. Why is it important to call attention to these practices? And what has been the response?

McGrory: Interestingly, these aren't new policies. The sheriff's office has had this intelligence operation in place since 2010. The sheriff had spoken about it at campaign events and to community leaders, although his office had never gone into great detail about what they were doing. What our work did was explain to the community how these practices worked and what they meant. For that reason alone, I think it was of great importance to the community, because a lot of people were unaware of this practice and how certain data was being used before we published.

We saw almost immediate outrage from civil rights groups, parent groups, and folks in the community who really wanted to speak up and demand transparency and accountability. That was the first piece of impact that we saw.

Q. What first alerted you to the Pasco Sheriff’s Office practice of using an algorithm to identify people as “potential future criminals?”

McGrory: We discovered that this practice was happening by reading a 427-page lawsuit that had been filed in federal court against the Sheriff by a number of former deputies who were alleging all sorts of abuses by the sheriff. One of the allegations in particular stood out to us, and that was that the sheriff's office had an intelligence program that was data driven and one of the former deputies was saying that the agency was using that program with the mandate for these deputies to essentially harass individuals until their lives were so miserable that they either wanted to move out of the county or sue the agency. Upon reading that we were really interested in what was going on and eager to learn more.

Q. How did the story change along the way? For example, did you know that the sheriff had secret access to private student records at the local high school at the onset?

Bedi: Attached to the original lawsuit was an early manual on the sheriff’s program. And one of the first things we wanted to learn was how does this work and how does it look like to the people who are targeted and affected by this program. We set out really early on to talk to as many families and people who had been subject to the program as possible.

We drove around Pasco County knocking on doors and used some data from calls for service that marked which people were visited for this program and tried to talk to as many of them as possible. Very quickly, we started to hear a pattern: person after person described these constant visits around the clock that eventually amounted — in many of their descriptions — to harassment. This established a pattern of how this program works in real life.

Q. How receptive was the Pasco Sheriff’s Office to your investigation?

McGrory: We asked the sheriff for an interview at the very beginning of our reporting. I personally believe that investigative stories are best when you can talk to as many people as possible and get all the various facets of a story. The sheriff declined in interview with us at that point and from there on out we made a lot of records requests to his office. 

Sometimes we think that investigative reporters work entirely in secret and then hit the subject of the investigation with that “gotcha” at the end, but that certainly wasn't the case here. Once we had spent enough time reporting and looking at the documents and data and felt ready to have a more informed conversation with the sheriff's office, we reached out again and asked for another interview. The sheriff's office declined again at that point, so we did what we do in many of our investigative reports: We sent them a memo with all of the findings that we had amassed during the course of our reporting and said, “If you want to respond to any of these findings, please feel free to do so.” They then sent us many, many pages of responses. About 30 pages.

Q. What tips do you two have for other journalists reporting on local law enforcement?  

McGrory: My best advice is to be curious and do as much reading about the agency and the agency’s leaders as possible. Had we not thought to read the entirety of this lawsuit, we would have never found out about this program. Agencies are often doing or trying a lot of different things that they may not be talking about in press releases, so there may be programs and policies that are kind of hidden from public view. These things surface in lawsuits, but they can also surface in conversations with sources, so it’s important to question everything you know and try to dig deep into these agencies to figure out what's going on below the surface.

Bedi: I think it's easy to just take a police report or a law enforcement agency’s statement at its word and use those fact, but it’s important to be curious and get other perspectives. Get interviews with other people involved and also try to get other data and records that tell the same story over and over, so you can triple and quadruple check what happened in certain interactions.

I think one of the key things we did was to get that body cam footage, which allowed us to describe exactly how some of these interactions played out rather than do a he said, she said using the sheriff's office statement and statement of the person involved. What was said in the police report often didn’t match up with what we saw in the body cam footage.

Q. Cities around the country have promised police reform after calls for change following the murder of George Floyd. Do you have any final words of advice on covering policing tactics moving forward?

McGrory: Policing is fluid and what's acceptable and what's in vogue at one point in time may be completely unacceptable and out of fashion just a few years later. Data-driven policing, for example, became very popular after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and continued to gain in popularity as new technology came out.

But perhaps we're going to see, in the wake of calls for reform and even abolishing the police, more of a return to community policing or strategies in which officers actually know the people and walk the beat, operating from less of a NSA-style approach. Certainly, continuing to question all of these things in the post-George Floyd environment is going to be really important.