The California Reporting Project: Journalists and Berkeley Students Key to Game Changing Database of Police Misconduct
by Jo Ellen Nott
A cadre of journalists at six news outlets in California joined together to request police misconduct records after these documents became available to the public with the passage of the “Right to Know Act” or SB 1421 in 2018. The group they formed is called the California Reporting Project (“CRP”). From the original six news outlets, the CRP has grown to 40 participating news organizations. Since 2018, they have received over 100,000 formerly sealed records regarding three main categories of police misconduct: Use of Force, Sexual Assault, and Official Dishonesty.
When law enforcement agencies complied with records requests, reporters soon found themselves inundated with over 100,000 documents. The lead data reporter for CRP turned to four data science students at the University of California at Berkeley for help in organizing and making the data easily accessible to journalists. The students wrote programs to recognize basic information from the police records, like names, locations, and case numbers. This sorting made it easier to group files together and organize data for the journalists to analyze.
The CRP does more than request, collect, and scan records. Since the source document is a police report, by nature a subjective and narrative document, the CRP tasks two journalists to read each report and record the facts of the case as he or she sees fit. An editor compares the two results before the information is entered into the database. The objective is to quantify uses of force, sexual misconduct, and dishonesty that reports narrate.
The data that have emerged from the CRP have allowed journalists to write hundreds of original SB 1421 stories, telling of police misconduct. A sampling of just some of the important stories that newsrooms have broken since the passing of the act include: Police on the Bakersfield force broke 31 people’s bones in four years, yet no officer has been disciplined for it. a CHP officer harassed 21 women, but the agency did not pursue criminal charges after firing him. Santa Clara County Sheriff fired a deputy for lying about the beating death of an inmate. Ex-Richmond police lieutenant swapped sexually explicit texts with an exploited teen. On-duty Sutter sheriff’s deputy used his job to coerce women into sex. Video shows SLO County deputies firing 35 shots in deadly Highway 101 traffic stop. Santa Clara County jail officers fired after unnecessary force, and it was covered up. Bay Area police offer fired for offering to help a woman charged with drunken driving in exchange for sex. This is just the tip of the iceberg as there are numerous other accounts of police misconduct.
Founding journalist and data lead of the California Reporting Project Lisa Pickoff-White has made it clear that the database isn’t complete yet, and the Berkeley data science students’ work is fundamental to its viability. “I don’t know if we’d be able to do this without them,” Pickoff-White said. “None of these newsrooms would be able to automate this work on their own.”
Sources: niemanlab.org, projects.scpr.org
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