By Stephanie Cook (MJour'18)
Illustrations: Daniel Zender, special to ProPublica (thumbnail and top), Lisa Larson-Walker/ProPublica (middle)
Printed on the rear doors of each white and blue New York Police Department vehicle are the words, “courtesy, professionalism, respect." But those words weren’t on the unmarked NYPD cruiser that struck a Black teenager in Brooklyn on Halloween in 2019.
Several witnesses watched as the vehicle drove against traffic up a one-way street, pursuing a group of teenage boys before hitting one of the kids who jumped into the street. Among these witnesses were the wife and six-year-old daughter of Eric Umansky, deputy managing editor at ProPublica, who spent the rest of that night and the days that followed searching for information about what had transpired and whether the officers would be punished.
“There was footage and plenty of witnesses, and I happen to be an investigative journalist,” Umansky writes. “I thought there was at least a chance I could get answers. Instead, the episode crystallized all of the ways in which the NYPD is shielded from accountability.”
That night sparked a searing investigation into how the country’s largest police department maintains impunity from public oversight and the toll that impunity takes on the city’s civilians––especially those who are marginalized and most at risk.
ProPublica’s 10-part series “The NYPD Files” is the winner of this year’s Al Nakkula Award for police reporting, co-sponsored by The Denver Press Club and the University of Colorado Boulder's College of Media, Communication and Information.
“ProPublica’s ‘NYPD Files’ blew us away and stood out clearly as our top choice despite an astonishingly excellent series of contenders,” says CU News Corps Director and lead judge Chuck Plunkett. “While we discussed the package, we noted that any number of the stories in the 10-part series could have been offered as a standalone entry and easily reached finalist consideration.”
“The NYPD Files” details persistent reports of the department withholding evidence from the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), which investigates civilian complaints against the police, and in many cases overruling the agency’s findings. Together, the stories illuminate an opaque system that gives unilateral power to a police commissioner who answers solely to the city’s mayor. The mayor, in turn, faces a powerful police union that wields its extensive resources and influence to shield its own.
The series also highlights stories of people shaped by this system: The top NYPD official promoted up the ranks despite a history of complaints by Black and Latino men accusing him of conducting invasive and illegal strip searches; the 32-year-old Black man with mental health issues who was tased and shot by officers trained to respond to those in crisis with empathy rather than force; the notorious vice officer protected by the department despite numerous allegations of false arrests and sexual misconduct––each representing many others like them whose stories remain untold.
Perhaps the most notable element of the series is its searchable database, which offers the public an unprecedented look into the records of officers with one or more complaints substantiated by the CCRB, dating back to 1985. Not only is the data viewable to the public, but its contents can be downloaded for the use of additional reporting by data experts.
“Details were kept secret by 50-a, a state law that has barred the public from seeing police discipline records. But after the killing of George Floyd, nationwide calls for reform prompted New York legislators to repeal the law,” writes ProPublica Editor-in-Chief Stephen Engelberg. “Because of his sourcing and understanding of the records, Umansky was able to quickly request and obtain a trove of them no one else had, just before unions successfully fought in court to temporarily block the city from releasing records.”
Among many striking revelations yielded from the data is the fact that in 2018, the CCRB was able to substantiate just 73 of about 3,000 allegations of misuse of force––a mere 2.4%.
“ProPublica's entry stood out because of its focus on real people - both those who are hurt by police actions and those who turn to the media for stories that help them navigate the world,” says judge Donna Bryson, national affairs editor at Reuters. “That regard for readers was evident to me in ProPublica's decision to publish the data it had on police disciplinary records in ways readers can use, and its requests embedded in the stories to readers to submit their own stories of NYPD misconduct.”
According to Plunkett, the judges deadlocked when deciding this year’s honorable mentions. The two runners-up include the Dallas Morning News report "The Memory Room," and the Louisville Courier Journal's extensive reporting on Breonna Taylor.
Since March of 2020, Courier Journal reporters Darcy Costello, Tessa Duvall, Kala Kachmar, Sarah Ladd, Matt Mencarini and Andrew Wolfson have published hundreds of stories on the case of Breonna Taylor and uncovered critical pieces of information that cast doubt on the police accounts of her death.
“In all, the Courier Journal has written more than 950 Breonna Taylor stories since she died. And we’re nowhere near finished,” writes News Director and Director of Investigations Mike Trautmann. “The newsroom’s diligence and perseverance in uncovering the truth and holding law enforcement and the city accountable has made it the predominant source in the U.S. for Breonna Taylor news.”
“The Memory Room,” by Dallas Morning News reporters Dave Boucher and Lauren McGaughy, explores the case of a Southern Methodist University student beaten in her bed by an intruder. Without evidence to rely on, Dallas police turned to the controversial technique of hypnosis.
“In popular culture, hypnosis is merely a stage act. But in Texas, it is a matter of life and death,” writes Dallas Morning News Investigative Editor Karisa King. “‘The Memory Room’ combined compelling storytelling with shoe leather reporting, data analysis and legal research to shed light on a dangerous police practice that remained in the shadows for decades.”
In addition to Plunkett and Bryson, this year’s judges include Shelly Bradbury, court reporter for The Denver Post; Jeff Roberts, director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition; and Allison Sherry, immigration and criminal justice reporter at Colorado Public Radio.
The Al Nakkula award for police reporting will be presented to Umansky and ProPublica during The Denver Press Club’s Damon Runyon Award dinner, to be held this fall. The award honors the late Al Nakkula, a 46-year veteran of the Rocky Mountain News whose tenacity made him a legendary police reporter. Nakkula passed away in 1990.
“Somewhere in heaven, Al Nakkula is hugely impressed and thrilled to have his namesake prize awarded to this stellar team of talented, hard-working journalists,” Plunkett writes.