Cops and Credibility

Country/area: United States

Organisation: Crosscut, a service of Cascade Public Media

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 8/4/2021

Credit: Melissa Santos

Biography: Melissa Santos is Crosscut’s staff reporter covering state politics and the Legislature. She came to Crosscut from The Seattle Times editorial board, where she wrote columns and opinion pieces focusing on state government. Prior to that, she spent eight years as a reporter at The News Tribune in Tacoma, including five years covering the state Capitol. Find her on Twitter at @MelissaSantos1 or email at melissa.santos@crosscut.com.

Project description:

After the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Crosscut decided to find out how many cops in Washington state had been flagged by prosecutors as having credibility issues, yet who remained working as police officers. This involved requesting thousands of pages of documents – more than 100 records requests in all – to create a unique database of officers who had been flagged by prosecutors for issues such as lying, filing inaccurate reports, showing racial bias and using excessive force, but who didn’t lose their jobs as a result.

Impact reached:

By examining prosecutors’ files across 39 Washington counties, Crosscut identified 183 cops who had been flagged by prosecutors as having credibility issues, yet who continued to work in law enforcement. Prosecutors track these officers using lists commonly known as Brady lists.

Additional reporting revealed some of these officers had initially been fired for their actions, but were later reinstated through arbitration. This fueled discussions in the state Legislature about reforming arbitration rules, a debate that continues today.

Our reporting also exposed the limits of a new police accountability law, showing that – contrary to key legislators’ intent – the measure would not go after officers for past misconduct. This prompted the speaker of the state House to say that it may be necessary to refine and clarify this new law.

Our reporting also pushed some county prosecutors to update their Brady lists to include additional officers. In other cases, county prosecutors refined their systems for tracking troubled cops.

The same day our project came out, the state’s Black Lives Matter Alliance called on the state Attorney General to investigate officers who had been placed on prosecutors’ Brady lists. A day after our series was published, a statewide watchdog group, the Washington Coalition For Open Government, gave us an award for advancing the cause of open government in Washington state.

Techniques/technologies used:

We used the state’s Public Records Act to request documents from 39 counties, as well as several dozen smaller jurisdictions. We then went through tens of thousands of pages of PDFs and hand entered information into Google Sheets to create our own database of officers on county prosecutors’ Brady lists, along with the reasons why they had been placed there. We then used a SQLite client, DB Browser, to compare our database of more than 800 officers with the state Criminal Justice Training Commission’s database of police officers who are currently working.

This analysis, completed using relational database tools, initially produced a list of more than 200 working officers that appeared to be on Brady lists in Washington state. Our fact-checking and verification process, which involved reaching out to individual jurisdictions and police officers to confirm the accuracy of our database, showed that a few of those officers were false matches, however. In the end, we were able to confidently identify 183 officers who continued to work as cops despite being flagged by prosecutors as having credibility issues. This number, we are certain, is an undercount, as we were very careful to not count certain officers if there was any doubt about whether they were the same person named on a prosecutor’s Brady list.

We used pivot tables in Excel to analyze how many officers were on the Brady list in each county and the reasons they were placed there. This allowed us to share with readers how many officers were flagged by county prosecutors for issues such as lying versus issues like mishandling evidence.

What was the hardest part of this project?

Getting the records and determining which officers were still working were the biggest challenges. This project involved more than 100 records requests because this information isn’t kept in any centralized place. Each prosecutor’s office maintains their own sets of files and lists of officers who have had past issues.

Additionally, prosecutors’ files don’t always include information about what the actual offense was, or what specific behavior caused an officer to end up on a Brady list. This meant we had to file dozens of follow-up requests with local police agencies for disciplinary records to acquire the information needed to create a meaningful database.

After creating our database of all officers on county prosecutors’ Brady lists, it became clear many of these officers no longer work in law enforcement. We wanted to know how many officers with problematic histories were still working. To find this number, we had to acquire a database of all currently working peace officers in Washington state and compare it with our built-from-scratch database (using SQLite).

Cleaning and fact-checking the database took a great deal of time because we had to use names as our field of comparison, since there wasn’t a unique identifying number for each officer that was common to both databases. Most of the records we received did not even contain officers’ dates of birth that could be cross referenced with the state’s database of certified officers.

This meant many days of locating and discarding duplicates, as well as confirming the identity of individuals — particularly for officers who had common names or had changed departments. The difficulty involved in obtaining these records and completing the necessary follow up is part of what made this a mammoth project, one that no other news outlet in our state decided to take on.

What can others learn from this project?

Hopefully, this project has provided a blueprint for other reporters in other states to drill down and find out how many local officers are on prosecutors’ Brady lists, but have not lost their jobs over their lying or misconduct.

In states with public disclosure laws like Washington’s, journalists can check with their county prosecutors’ offices to request more information about officers with credibility issues.

Reporters can also look to see what procedures are in place for local prosecutors to disclose information that could be used to question an officer’s testimony. Those reporters can then evaluate and explore whether prosecutors are meeting their obligations to disclose potentially exonerating information – and if not, why not.

Project links: