How they did it: Public records helped reporters investigate police abuse of power

 
Screenshot of video showing police hitting handcuffed man
A still frame from an Elkhart, Indiana police station video shows officers punching a man. (Obtained from the South Bend Tribune)
By

March 5, 2019

Editor’s note: On March 12, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy will award the 2019 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. Seven reporting teams have been chosen as finalists for the 2019 prize, which carries a $10,000 award for finalists and $25,000 for the winner. This year, for the first time, Journalist’s Resource is publishing a series of interviews with the finalists, in the interest of giving a behind-the-scenes explanation of the process, tools, and legwork it takes to create an important piece of investigative journalism. Journalist’s Resource is a project of the Shorenstein Center, but had no involvement with or influence on the judging process for the Goldsmith Prize finalists or winner.

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In the investigative series, “Criminal Justice in Elkhart, Indiana,” two journalists uncovered serious abuses of power in the city’s police department — showing, for example, how the police chief promoted 18 supervisors with disciplinary records and bringing to light the fact that two officers who repeatedly punched a handcuffed man in the face received only a written reprimand.

The series demonstrates how the skillful use of public records — knowing which kinds of records exist, how to get them and what to do when government officials block or delay access — can help reporters spotlight problems and initiate change in a community. The yearlong investigation by Christian Sheckler, a public safety reporter at the South Bend Tribune, and Ken Armstrong, a senior reporter at ProPublica, led to the police chief’s resignation and prompted the mayor to seek an independent review of the department’s policies and practices.

Almost a year after the two Elkhart policemen were captured on video beating a handcuffed man in the face more than 10 times — a video that became public only after Sheckler and Armstrong began investigating — authorities charged the two officers with battery.

In early 2018, the two journalists already had begun looking into problems with the Indiana police department’s handling of criminal investigations when Sheckler heard that two officers were disciplined for excessive use of force during a separate incident. He decided to check it out. He asked to see the officers’ personnel files and for other records, including the police department’s video of the incident, which took place in a police station detention center.

As is often the case when requesting records, Sheckler said he was not sure what they would show. He knew, though, that reviewing different kinds of records connected to the same incident would help him get a fuller understanding of what happened and how it was handled by the city.

What Sheckler and Armstrong discovered in those records helped them demonstrate that some Elkhart officers were not being appropriately disciplined.

“If we hadn’t asked for that video, first of all, these two officers wouldn’t have been charged with battery for punching this handcuffed person because decisionmakers probably wouldn’t have been aware this happened,” Sheckler told Journalist’s Resource. “The public wouldn’t have been able to see exactly what had happened. There was a very, very strong reaction in the community about what the video showed.”

The investigative series was chosen recently as a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, awarded annually by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, which is where Journalist’s Resource is housed.

Armstrong and Sheckler were able to team up for this project thanks to a new program offered by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that focuses on investigative journalism. The South Bend Tribune applied for a spot in ProPublica’s inaugural Local Reporting Network. Of the 239 news organizations that applied, seven were selected in late 2017. The program provides newsrooms with significant assistance. Not only does ProPublica reimburse news organizations for a year of salary and benefits for each reporter who participates, ProPublica also volunteers its own people and resources to help out.

Sheckler, a journalist for about eight years, reported out stories from Elkhart while Armstrong, a Pulitzer Prize winner who has covered criminal justice issues for three decades, assisted from his home in Seattle.

 

The power of public records

The series was built largely on public records, allowing Sheckler and Armstrong to tell stories even when some of the people involved refused to be interviewed or speak on certain subjects. For this kind of journalism, Armstrong said it’s critical that reporters know the public records laws governing the various government agencies in their state, including how records requests must be written.

“In Indiana, you can’t just ask for a public official’s emails and say ‘Give me all emails that mention this or that term,’” Armstrong explained. “They set parameters in terms of how far back [you can acquire records] and what the question has to bore in on. They have a public access counselor in Indiana to appeal to if you feel you’ve been wrongly denied records. He [Sheckler] understood that and used it well.”

Not only did Sheckler seek help from Indiana’s public access counselor — a governor-appointed attorney who provides the public with advice and assistance accessing public information — but he and Armstrong also decided to report on the challenges they faced getting records. They encountered so many challenges that they wrote a whole article focusing on public officials’ attempts to delay, discourage and bar their access.

At one point, a judge issued orders blocking access to all police reports in three court files as well as exhibits shown to jurors and legal briefs that had been filed on appeal. Sheckler and Armstrong wrote in an article published in August 2018 that the orders “in effect, prevented reporters and the public from seeing evidence used to convict the defendants, as well as the arguments raised afterward about whether the trials had been just.”

Indiana’s public access counselor issued an opinion stating that the judge should have released the police reports and appellate briefs, the journalists reported. An administrator for the Indiana Supreme Court advised the judge that the exhibits used at trial should be public. Afterward, the judge released some, but not all of the documents the reporters sought.

The judge did not respond to a separate request to hear a taped recording of a trial held in 1997, which, under state law, is a public record. Sheckler and Armstrong were forced to find another way to get that information. They tracked down a court reporter and ordered a transcript made, for which the South Bend Tribune and ProPublica had to pay $1,000.

Armstrong said reporting about these challenges is a way to hold government agencies accountable while also making the public aware that records they should be able to easily obtain are sometimes withheld.

“I am a huge advocate of letting readers know about the difficulties getting records that the public is allowed to see,” he said. “I think that’s important. It speaks to an agency’s culture. It speaks to an agency’s practices. It is also important to let the public know why records are important to them.”

 

Tips for journalists

Sheckler and Armstrong offered these five tips to help journalists interested in developing or improving their investigative reporting skills:

  1. Remember that the most useful public records might be audio and video recordings.

“Think of different types of records, different steps along the way where there might be a record made that is relevant,” Sheckler advised. As part of his investigation, he obtained the minutes of meetings held by the city’s civilian oversight board because he wanted to know more about how police officer misconduct is handled in Elkhart. During meetings of the board, the police chief typically explains what disciplinary action he intends to pursue for an officer and why.

Sheckler said the meeting minutes did not contain enough detail so he requested audio recordings. Surprisingly, he learned that the city kept recordings of this board’s meetings going back more than a decade. By listening to recordings of the meetings, Sheckler learned that the police chief had mischaracterized some officers’ behavior and left out key information when he sought the board’s approval for certain disciplinary actions.

  1. If someone refuses an interview, look for records that tell his or her side of the story.

If a person will not or cannot give an interview, seek out records that show what they have said about a topic in their words — for example, complaint affidavits and transcripts of court depositions. Audio and video recordings can offer details about how people presented information that cannot be captured in writing.

“Our stories were very record-heavy and document-heavy,” Sheckler said. “There were instances where we were able to tell a pretty thorough story relying largely on various types of records and documents, even when some of the key characters didn’t want to talk to us and do interviews.”

  1. Get experience covering multiple beats.

By covering different government agencies, a journalist can learn more about how different agencies work as well as how they maintain records and handle records requests. “I think it’s important to cover as many beats as you can when you’re a young reporter because you learn so much by covering a school board, by covering the department of health, by covering the police department and the courts,” Armstrong said. “The more you get grounded in process and how government works, that’s an invaluable education.”

  1. Establish a relationship with public information officers.

Many government agencies have a dedicated person or office of people who handle requests for public records. Armstrong said it helps to speak to a public information officer on the phone to explain your request and then follow up with a written request that cites relevant laws and provisions and documents the date that you spoke to the public information officer by phone. When public information officers are helpful, thank them because you likely will need their help again in the future.

  1. Keep an entitled state of mind.

Never apologize for asking for public records. “It’s a real mistake to assume you won’t get public records and apologize,” Armstrong said. “Assuming the record exists and assuming you’re entitled to it is an important approach in the beginning.”

 

Interested in the other Goldsmith Prize finalists? Read about how two journalists’ tenacity, language skills and cultural competency helped them investigate a teen labor trafficking scheme in Ohio. Looking for more reporting tips? Check out our list of 26 ways to find information on people on deadline.

 

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