Expert Commentary

How they did it: Tampa Bay Times reporters uncover predictive policing project used to harass residents, profile kids

Journalist Neil Bedi offers seven tips on using academic research as a reporting tool in investigative projects.

predictive policing pasco county florida targeted
Rio Wojtecki, a 15-year-old whom the Pasco County Sheriff's Office checked on 21 times, with his mother at their house in June 2020. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times)

Annually, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy awards the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting to a stellar investigative report that has had a direct impact on government, politics and policy at the national, state or local levels. Six reporting teams were chosen as finalists for the 2021 prize, which carries a $10,000 award for finalists and $25,000 for the winner. The Journalist’s Resource is interviewing many of the finalists to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the processes, tools and legwork it takes to create an important piece of investigative journalism. The entry discussed here, “Targeted,” was published in the Tampa Bay TimesThe Journalist’s Resource is a project of the Shorenstein Center, but was not involved in judging the Goldsmith Prize. The winner of the $25,000 will be announced on April 13.

When Tampa Bay Times reporters Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi began investigating a data-driven initiative a local sheriff’s office launched to forecast crime in one Florida county, they knew they needed help from academic researchers.

For the first story of their series, “Targeted,” they called on 15 experts to help them understand and interrogate the predictive policing program, which used a combination of information — arrest records and social networks, for example — to anticipate who was most likely to become a criminal. The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office aimed to prevent crime by continuously monitoring and harassing certain residents and their families, McGrory and Bedi reported.

They described deputies showing up at residences, often without a search warrant or evidence of a crime. Officers, they wrote, “swarm homes in the middle of the night, waking families and embarrassing people in front of their neighbors. They write tickets for missing mailbox numbers and overgrown grass, saddling residents with court dates and fines. They come again and again, making arrests for any reason they can.”

One former deputy told McGrory and Bedi that officers were directed to make people’s lives miserable “until they move or sue.” The series revealed the law enforcement agency targeted nearly 1,000 people over five years. At least 1 in 10 were younger than 18 years.

In the second story in the series, the journalists drew on the knowledge of scholars to explain privacy issues and the potential harms of a separate system the sheriff’s office created to identify children it thinks might “fall into a life of crime,” based on factors such as school grades and whether they had been abused.

The yearlong investigation prompted an outcry in Pasco County and across the U.S. as civil liberties organizations, nonprofit groups, parents and others called for change. In January, the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor requested a federal investigation into the school district’s practice of releasing federally-protected student data to the sheriff’s office. Earlier this month, a Florida Senate committee approved a proposal that would prohibit school districts statewide from sharing student grades with law enforcement agencies without parents’ written permission.

Bedi says the scholarly expertise he and McGrory gathered strengthened their series. Their skillful use of research and researchers as a reporting tool caught our attention at The Journalist’s Resource, where our main goal is bridging the knowledge gap between journalists and academics.

McGrory is on maternity leave, but we asked Bedi about their reporting processes, and for pointers to help other journalists take on similar projects. We combined his wealth of insight into these seven tips.

1. Contact academic experts early in the reporting process.

Bedi says he reaches out to academic experts at the very beginning of an investigative project to get a better understanding of an issue.

“These topics always end up being so complex, so we know from the moment we start that we need experts,” he says. “We try to get on as many of their radars as possible and get as much insight and information from them as possible.”

He adds it’s wise to start contacting academics early because it can take time to figure out which ones have the most expertise on specific subjects — and which ones have the time and interest in helping journalists. Even after building a list of top experts willing to help, journalists will have to work around these experts’ busy schedules for interviews and consultations.

Bedi suggests journalists keep in contact with experts throughout the reporting process.

“When we’re doing investigative work like this — where the findings can be really strong and surprising and outrageous at times — we find it’s really important to keep checking in with people who know this really well to make sure that our reporting is on track and what we’re finding makes sense,” he explains.

2. Ask academics to help evaluate policies, programs and practices.

Bedi and McGrory asked 15 policing experts for their thoughts on different aspects of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office program. Several agreed — at no charge — to read versions of the agency’s program manual as well as body-camera footage of law enforcement’s interactions with local residents.

The reporters write in their series that the experts “identified some portions of the program that are based on well-established law enforcement philosophies, including problem-oriented and community policing. But they also pointed to what they described as serious flaws.” The experts helped Bedi and McGrory understand and explain those flaws, with one expert going so far as to say the manual “feels like everything that’s wrong about policing in one document.”

3. Use research to explain the unintended consequences of government actions.

Bedi and McGrory spoke with academics who explained that the Pasco County data program, aimed at preventing juvenile offenders from committing future crimes, could backfire.

Experts “pointed to studies showing aggressive policing makes juvenile offenders more likely to reoffend, not less,” the journalists write.

4. Remember that academic research and researchers are excellent sources for fact-checking claims.

The sheriff’s office told the reporters it developed its program based on academic research suggesting that youth who experience childhood trauma are more likely to commit violent crimes later in life.

Bedi and McGrory asked renowned criminologist David Kennedy, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, about the link between childhood trauma and crime. He told them there’s an “extremely weak” correlation and that making predictions about someone’s future behavior based on childhood experiences “flies in the face of the science.”

Bedi and McGrory called on another researcher, Bryanna Fox, an associate professor at the University of South Florida’s Department of Criminology, to fact-check a statement made by the sheriff’s office. In her research, Fox had found correlations between childhood trauma and future offending. The sheriff’s office had accused the news outlet of omitting an interview with Fox in which she disputed the reporters’ findings. However, when the reporters called Fox, she said she was surprised by the agency’s statement. She said she had not disputed the reporters’ findings and was not involved with the sheriff’s office programs featured in the Times‘ series.

“There is nothing — your gender, your age, your prior abuse history, your genetics and psychology — none of it is a true predictor of crime,” Fox told Bedi and McGrory.

5.  Bolster your coverage by presenting differing academic viewpoints.

Bedi urges journalists to seek differing academic viewpoints. This is not the same as “presenting both sides” of a story, because often there are many ways to interpret academic findings. Also, scholars might have divergent opinions on how findings could affect the public. Presenting differing views makes it clear when scholars disagree and can help demonstrate the complexity of an issue.

“You do not want same-minded experts who are all friends and agree and have the same thoughts,” Bedi says.

6. To find academics with specific expertise, search academic journals and conference agendas — and keep asking, “Is there someone else I should talk to?”

Bedi says academic journals, which publish academic papers, and agendas for academic conferences, where researchers present and discuss their work, are two of the best places to find experts in a specific subject area.

Academic journal websites generally allow users to search academic articles by topic. Journalists also can use Google Scholar to find authors by research topic. Research organizations such as the American Society of Criminology and American Educational Research Association present new and ongoing research during their annual meetings.

When speaking with scholars, ask for suggestions about other scholars to contact, Bedi recommends.

“They know who the experts are, who the best people to reach out to are,” he says.

7. Read researchers’ work before contacting them.

There are several reasons to familiarize yourself with a researcher’s work before contacting them, Bedi says. Doing that confirms a researcher has expertise in your area of interest, and it saves time — the researcher won’t need to explain basic details and findings.

Also, if you indicate in your first call or email to a researcher that you have a baseline understanding of their work, they might be more open to working with you, Bedi says.

“Read their papers and listen to their talks,” he says. “Reference some of it in the [first] email. I think it shows you’re interested in putting time into understanding something they care about.”

If you’re looking for more on finding and using academic research, we’ve created tip sheets on how to tell good research from flawed research, the steps for determining whether a medical study in newsworthy and how journalists can access academic work for free. We also have a tip sheet on the six things journalists should know to cover coronavirus-related preprints, research papers that haven’t been peer reviewed by experts.

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