Among his findings: In 2018, the last year for which a full picture is available, the CCRB looked into nearly 3,000 allegations involving allegations of violence; only 73 were substantiated. The most severe punishment, loss of vacation days, was meted out to nine officers.
No details were available on any of these cases due to 50-a, a New York law that barred the public from seeing police discipline records. But that was about to change. About a week before we published Umansky’s story, New York lawmakers repealed that law, making it possible to ask for records on the Halloween case and a whole lot more.
Soon after, Umansky filed a request for those records. Rather than ask for documents on every complaint ever filed, he asked the board for the records of every police officer who had had at least one substantiated complaint. The files would include records of that case and a barebones summary of all complaints against those officers. It also meant the request could be processed relatively quickly.
Days later, we had the data. As we worked through it, the records also became engulfed in a legal battle. Police unions sued New York City to keep many of the records secret. Last week, a federal judge blocked not only the city from disclosing the records but also
the New York Civil Liberties Union, which had the data too. The police unions did not know that we also had many of the records.
Normally, preparing such data for publication in a searchable form requires weeks of code writing and checking. In this instance, we wanted to move quickly while still taking enough time to weigh some difficult ethical questions.
One immediate issue presented by the data was whether we would include in our database the cases CCRB investigators had concluded were “unfounded,” meaning the evidence suggests the allegation never happened. That brought a straightforward answer: No.
The unsubstantiated allegations in the data posed a more difficult question. Investigators had neither proved nor disproved them. In the end, we decided to include a terse description of those cases on the theory that their number and nature might help readers or other journalists see a pattern. We understood that some of these accusations may be exaggerated or even made up. But we agreed with the legislators’ view in repealing 50-a that the enormous power police officers wield can make them subject to more scrutiny than ordinary citizens.
On Saturday afternoon, we learned that the city of New York had mentioned in court papers that ProPublica had some of the data. In the hours that followed, a team of computer developers began scrambling to create an online database that could be searched by readers.
As it happened, both Ken Schwencke, the editor of our news apps team, and Derek Willis, one of our news applications developers, were at the beach. They quickly gathered up their towels and raced back to their computers.
Thankfully, we had been planning for just this possibility. Derek and Moiz Syed, another news app developer, had already written some of the code. Umansky had drafted a brief story that would accompany the database and Henri Cauvin, a senior editor and experienced cop reporter, pored over the copy as midnight approached.
We knew this work would come under intense scrutiny — from the police unions that fought to keep the information secret to advocates on all sides to our fellow journalists. Data editor Ryann Jones and Celeste LeCompte, ProPublica’s vice president for strategy and operations who oversees our data sales, did spot checks to search for errors.
We hit the publish button at 11:07 a.m., less than 24 hours after we had learned that our possession of the data was public knowledge.
The reckoning that is unfolding in 2020 is without precedent (I thought the repeal of 50-a wouldn’t occur in my lifetime). What we’ve learned at ProPublica about police and prosecutorial misconduct has mostly come through the digging of veteran police reporters like A.C. Thompson, who exposed the widespread misconduct of New Orleans police after Hurricane Katrina, or Topher Sanders, who broke the story on unjustified arrests for jaywalking in Jacksonville, Florida, in our “Walking While Black” series. The subject is so large, and important to where our society is going, that even editors can have some good ideas.