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March 20, 2019, 2:02 p.m.

With vast records of police misconduct now public, California news outlets are collaborating instead of competing

“All Californians have the right to this information. By pooling resources, we can expedite the public’s right to access misconduct and deadly use-of-force materials.”

What should news organizations do when an enormous cache of newsworthy information suddenly becomes available to reporters?

In an earlier era, you might have expected newspapers, broadcast outlets, and anyone else with an audience to battle for scoops, trying to get the exclusive angle or the blockbuster document that would sell papers or lead the 11 o’clock news. But today, frankly, not many outlets have the resources — or the economic incentives — to play that game. In a leaner time, the right move might be working together instead of fierce competition.

That’s what’s happening in California, where more than 30 news organizations have decided to work together on one of the state’s biggest opportunities for good journalism: the widespread release of police misconduct records. A bill signed into law last fall, SB 1421, overrode decades of precedent that had made it very difficult to access internal investigations or other evidence of wrongdoing by police. The new law took effect on January 1.

But while the law made those records available, it is still up to journalists (or other interested parties) to make the record requests, to respond to objections raised by police unions, and to try to tell both individual stories of misconduct and the larger narrative of what we can now know about policing in California. In a state of 40 million people, more than 600 law enforcement agencies, and about 120,000 sworn officers and civilian law-enforcement employees, that’s a tall order.

The scale of the challenge is what has led more than 30 news organizations to work together as the California Reporting Project. Instead of local papers getting only a limited window into their immediate area — and larger organizations duplicating their work in search of a statewide perspective — publishers and broadcasters big and small would coordinate their work, share their findings, and inform each others’ reporting.

The collaboration grew out of two public media organizations. “Our friends up at KQED in San Francisco — the NPR station there — called late last year to ask if we’d be interested in joining them in collaborating on these police records requests,” wrote Megan Garvey, managing editor of Southern California Public Radio’s KPCC. “It started out as just a handful of public radio newsrooms, and then we realized: Why stop there?”

They began reaching out to other types of news organizations: big newspapers (Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Orange County Register), smaller papers (Chico Enterprise-Record, Eureka Times-Standard, Lake County Record-Bee), nonprofit news sites (CALmatters, Voice of San Diego), smaller public radio stations (KVPR in Clovis, KCBX in San Luis Obispo), and even educators (Investigative Studios, a nonprofit affiliated with UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program). “Knowing there was this real sea change coming when it came to access to these records, California journalists started to think about what it would take to actually acquire those documents and then report on what they told us about patterns in police behavior,” Garvey wrote.

The news organizations have been working together for several months now, but the fruits of their collaborations began rolling out in earnest this week, when many outlets published stories connecting their own local findings to the statewide effort. The L.A. Times wrote about an officer who fled a DUI crash and then tried to push the blame on his mother. (He lost his job but didn’t face charges: “A sheriff’s investigator who handled the case said two of Bernal’s department colleagues who had crucial evidence declined to cooperate with the criminal investigation.”) The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa reported on several local agencies who were resisting releasing some files. (Only 4 of the agencies the newspaper has requested records from have turned any over so far.) KQED, the Bay Area News Group, and the UC Berkeley group have worked together on stories about officers who stole thousands of bullets, had sex in squad cars while on duty, used excessive force, and falsified records — none of whom ever faced prosecution. (One officer was fired after asking a sex worker to “secure a 14-year-old female for sex.”)

The stories also highlight the various ways agencies seem to be delaying or avoiding the release of records, including an “IT crisis” and a “dangerous storage container.” (“The boxes are stacked in such a manner causing it to be dangerous for an employee to enter,” a police chief wrote.) Other police departments chose to burn or shred old police records before the law took effect on January 1.

“For a state agency to burn records instead of turning them over as mandated by current law is inexcusable,” Sacramento Bee editor Lauren Gustus said. “All Californians have the right to this information. By pooling resources, we can expedite the public’s right to access misconduct and deadly use-of-force materials.” (The Bee and the L.A. Times are currently suing the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department over its refusal to turn over misconduct records promptly.)

“Our hope as publishers, editors, and reporters is that this unprecedented cooperation between 33 of California’s newsrooms will shine a light on police misconduct and use of force,” wrote Voice of Orange County’s Norberto Santana Jr. The small nonprofit site was able to collaborate with lawyers from the L.A. Times and KPCC to stop a police union from sealing misconduct records. “To be clear, if Voice of OC and our media partners had not taken legal action, your rights to see raw documents and truly hold law enforcement accountable would have been severely restricted,” Santana wrote.

Collaborations that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago have become a relatively common strategy for newsrooms — particularly on stories with large geographic reach or centered around a large collection of documents. The Panama Papers and Paradise Papers are global examples, where the reporting crossed country boundaries as easily as the offshore money they covered. Local and regional partnerships — see Philadelphia, Detroit, and most recently Charlotte — have also caught on as a way to divvy up reporting and to tell stories across multiple types of media.

There are also a number of precedents in California. Both the Center for Investigative Reporting and CALmatters have worked with many of the state’s news organizations over the years. The California Civic Data Coalition has worked for years to clean, crunch, and share public datasets across news organizations. And more than a decade ago, two dozen news outlets and journalism organizations worked together on the Chauncey Bailey Project to investigate the murder of its namesake, the editor of the Oakland Post.

As for this California coalition, its members have filed more than 1,100 records requests with more than 600 police agencies — so far.

Here’s the complete list of news organizations participating:

Bay Area News Group (including The Mercury News, the East Bay Times, and the Marin Independent Journal)
CALmatters
Capital Public Radio
Chico Enterprise-Record
Eureka Times-Standard
Investigative Studios
KAZU
KCBX
KCRW
KPCC/LAist
KQED
KVPR
Lake County Record-Bee
Long Beach Post
Los Angeles Times
Marin Independent Journal
Monterey Herald
Oroville Mercury-Register
Press Democrat
Red Bluff Daily News
Redding Record Searchlight
Sacramento Bee
San Diego Union-Tribune
San Francisco Chronicle
Santa Cruz Sentinel
Southern California News Group (including the Orange County Register, Riverside Press-Enterprise, and Los Angeles Daily News)
The Desert Sun
The Salinas Californian
Ukiah Daily Journal
Vacaville Reporter
Vallejo Times-Herald
Voice of Orange County
Voice of San Diego
Woodland Daily Democrat

Photo of a photographer and an Oakland police officer July 8, 2010 — the day that the police officer who shot Oscar Grant was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter but not guilty of murder or voluntary manslaughter — by Thomas Hawk used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 20, 2019, 2:02 p.m.
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