Unfettered Power: Mississippi Sheriffs

In the summer of 2022, Mississippi Today reporter Jerry Mitchell was alarmed by how often sheriffs accused of committing serious crimes managed to evade any consequences and remain in office. Mitchell and reporter Ilyssa Daly began investigating the state’s sheriffs and soon found themselves inundated with corruption allegations and harrowing tales of torture and violence from victims and witnesses across the state. Joining forces with the New York Times, the team obtained records logged from officers’ Tasers (the preferred torture device of the deputies, according to victims) and matched the logs with other departmental records to determine which device was assigned to each deputy. This allowed them to corroborate the victims’ accounts and identify additional victims. Their series of reports led to the federal indictment of one former sheriff and “lit a fire under federal authorities,” with the FBI requesting the reporters’ help in reaching the victims and witnesses for interviews.

This project was in part supported by Big Local News at Stanford University and the Pulitzer Center.

MIA: Crisis in the Ranks

With Philadelphia suffering record levels of gun violence, Philadelphia Inquirer journalists Barbara Laker, David Gambacorta, and William Bender spent a year investigating police officers’ abuse of Pennsylvania’s generous “Heart and Lung” disability benefit. An astonishing number were deemed by union-selected doctors as unavailable to work – one in seven patrol officers, or 14%, far greater than the percentage of disabled police in other cities. The reporters learned that the police union wielded a little-known power to select the doctors who treated the injured cops – a major conflict of interest – and discovered that of the seven doctors selected for the program, five had a history of questionable behavior. The Inquirer investigation prompted an audit of the benefits program by the City Controller, internal investigations by the Police Commissioner, and the introduction of a bill by state lawmakers aimed at cracking down on fraud and abuse within the police disability program. The reporting team also cites that by year’s end, the number of officers out with injury claims dropped by 31%, and the number of injured officers cleared for court duty more than tripled. 

Juvenile Injustice, Tennessee

In 2016, police arrested four Black girls at an elementary school in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Through more than 50 records requests and hundreds of hours of audio and video, reporters from WPLN and ProPublica uncovered a deeply unjust juvenile justice system that illegally arrested and jailed children, and disproportionately detained Black children. They discovered that the four girls, one as young as 8, were arrested for a crime that does not exist, in an investigation led by an officer who had been disciplined 37 times, on charges approved by judicial commissioners without law degrees, in a system overseen by a judge who failed the bar exam four times, in a county whose policy for locking up kids violated Tennessee law but was missed by inspectors year after year. Members of Congress have called for a federal civil rights investigation, and some members of the Tennessee legislature have called for the judge’s ouster. After the story was published, the judge announced she would be retiring at the end of her term this summer.

Mauled: When Police Dogs Are Weapons

In a year-long collaboration between regional and national outlets, reporters assembled the a first-of-its-kind database of incidents nationwide in which police dogs were used to attack suspects, resulting in serious injuries. They found that most victims were suspected of low-level non-violent crimes, and some were just bystanders. Injuries, both physical and psychological, were often severe and long-lasting. They resulted in disfigurement, reconstructive surgeries, permanent disability, and at least three deaths. This collaborative reporting project started with one journalist examining a local case in Alabama, and expanded nationally, joining forces with a similar investigation that had started in Indiana. In response to the series, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police announced it was tightening its policies for deploying police dogs; a national police think tank is drafting new guidelines on the use of K-9 units; and lawmakers in several states are using the reporting to push for new restrictions on the use of police dogs to bite people.

Read more about the story behind the investigation in this piece by The Journalist’s Resource.

Fake Drugs, Real Lives

WFAA-TV in Dallas exposed a conspiracy by police and drug dealers to blame drug trafficking crimes on illegal immigrants, a series that spurred investigations that went all the way to the police chief and the attorney general.

A Blue Wall of Silence – False Confessions

A series that documented systematic abuses, including excessive shootings and questionable murder confessions, in the Prince George’s County police department.

To Protect and Collect

“To Protect and Collect” examined a controversial police practice of keeping money seized during drug raids.