In May of last year, Laurence Du Sault and Katey Rusch stood hunched over a single desk in a records room in a courthouse in Lancaster, California, carefully parsing and then photocopying court files they had pulled on numerous police officers convicted of crimes. No chairs and no breaks, they had already overstayed the window during which they were supposed to have access to the files. When their visit was complete—one of dozens of trips to courthouses they had made that spring and summer—they left with copies of pages from 13 case files.
The pair, both graduate students at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, were among the dozens of reporters from six media organizations working on a mammoth investigation exploring how often police officers in California are convicted of crimes and what happens to them when they are. The findings of the six-months-long investigation, which was anchored by Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program (IRP) and the Bay Area News Group, were published in mid-November. The searchable database produced by the effort is the most robust examination of criminal misconduct by police officers in California ever published in the state.
And the findings are huge. At least 630 police officers have been convicted of a crime in California over the past decade—an average of more than one every week. Nearly a fifth of those officers are still working or were still on the job more than a year after sentencing. Their convictions range from driving under the influence, to sex offenses—some with minors—to domestic abuse and assault. Officers charged with felonies that would bar them from carrying a gun and, consequently, from working as a police officer, frequently plea down to lesser offenses that enable them to keep their gun—and their job. And even officers who are terminated from one department often continue working as cops by jumping from one department to the next.
The project, which was published on the front pages of more than 30 California newspapers run by the five news groups involved in the project on a single Sunday in November, sparked a firestorm online and drew the attention of activists and elected officials.
Though it came at the same time as hubbub around SB 1421—a new California law requiring the release of documents related to certain kinds of police misconduct—the project arose independently.
Here’s the backstory.
In December 2018, Robert Lewis and Jason Paladino—then-reporters at the IRP—put in public records requests to the State of California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), the state agency that certifies police officers and sets minimum standards for their training. Lewis and Paladino had been working on different stories about police misconduct in California and wanted information on how many police officers had been convicted of crimes in the state over the previous decade.
Lewis and Paladino knew the list was a treasure chest. The convictions ranged from DUIs, to domestic abuse, to murder. Who on the list was currently a cop and what did that mean for public safety?
Lewis expected to receive details on maybe a couple dozen officers, he says. What he got instead was a spreadsheet listing the names and convictions of around 12,000 current police officers, former officers, and people who had applied unsuccessfully to become cops. Paladino received the same list.
Shocked, and unsure exactly what he had gotten his hands on, Lewis reached out to the POST for more context, like whether the convicted were current, former, or aspiring officers and which department they currently or previously worked for.
POST punted Lewis’ questions to the California state Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office. That’s when things got dicey.
Three weeks after POST turned over the list of convictions, Lewis and Paladino received a letter from the AG’s office advising them that the list of convictions had been “inadvertently” released to them, that mere possession of the list by unauthorized persons was a crime, and that the office could take “legal action” if they did not immediately destroy all copies of it and provide proof that they had done so. Sharing the list with anyone else was also a crime, the letter said.
The pair consulted with their editors, then with multiple First Amendment and criminal attorneys. After much consideration they decided that, rather than bow, they would not only press forward with their reporting but also publish the letter from the AG’s office itself. That initial story—published last February in partnership with the San Jose Mercury News, East Bay Times, and KQED—exploded online and drew additional coverage from national news outlets like the Washington Post and the Associated Press.
As for the list itself, Lewis and Paladino knew it was a treasure chest. The convictions ranged from DUIs, to domestic abuse, to murder. Who on the list was currently a cop and still employed despite their conviction? Where did they work, how did they keep their job, and what did that mean for public safety?
Finding the answers would require visiting courthouses in nearly every county in California to examine thousands of individual criminal case files. For that, Lewis and Paladino needed help.
Reporters around the state collected names, birthdates, locations, departments of employment. “At a certain point we just turned everybody loose, and I watched as this sheet filled up with data,” says Paladino.
With oversight from then-head of the IRP John Temple, a rare collaboration was formed among local newsrooms that are normally in competition with one another. Four media groups operating newsrooms around California—McClatchy, MediaNews Group, USA Today Network, and the Voice of San Diego—and the Emeryville-based Center for Investigative Reporting agreed to commit reporters and editors to the project. They divided up the state courthouses, with each newsroom generally tackling those closest to its home base. The IRP also recruited graduate students, including Du Sault and Rusch, at Berkeley’s J-School to join the team for the summer.
In total, more than 70 reporters and editors worked on the project over the course of six months.
But 12,000 names still was too many to tackle. Lewis and Paladino narrowed the list first by using a fuzzy match to compare the list of convictions against another list of current and former cops in California dating back to the 1950s. Twelve thousand names shrunk to 4,000. Half of those cases were for DUIs—if most of those were excluded, that left 1,500. Ultimately, reporters collectively pulled files on some 1,000 names—a function of the number of courthouses they could get to and the number of files that hadn’t been lost or destroyed before they got there.
There was also the matter of coordinating the dozens of reporters scattered around the state—training them in what to look for, where to track their findings, and how to navigate the courthouse record searches.
No counties in California maintain publicly available, online conviction records. So for every file they wanted, reporters had to physically visit a courthouse to get it. Some courthouses maintain records electronically on site. Some don’t. Some only keep hard copies of files at the courthouse—and sometimes the files were lost or destroyed. Some courthouses prohibit photocopying or put arbitrary limits on how many files can be viewed at once. “You do all of that and then you still have to read the document and see what it says,” says Lewis. “It was a very time-consuming, cumbersome process.”
Reporters around the state collected names, birthdates, locations, departments of employment. Lewis and Paladino, along with grad students from Berkeley’s J-School, tackled several courthouses in counties in the Bay Area—Napa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Sonoma—and a couple in Southern California. (Reporters with the Bay Area News Groups tackled Alameda County.) “At a certain point we just turned everybody loose, and I watched as this sheet filled up with data,” says Paladino.
The easiest cases to crack were those where the criminal case file indicated that the convicted offender was a police officer. For those that didn’t, reporters had to confirm the officers’ identities in other ways. They combed social media pages. They cold-called police departments, district attorneys, and even the people on the list directly to ask about their convictions.
California is one of just five states in the country that don’t decertify officers for misconduct. Almost all employment decisions are left to local departments and police chiefs.
Du Sault remembers spending five or six hours on one of her most difficult cases. Joshua Timothy Beard, according to the conviction list and a casefile from the Lancaster courthouse, had been prosecuted for animal cruelty in 2009 after leaving his dog to die of thirst in the blistering heat. Neighbors had reported the abuse after noticing the smell of the dog’s body decaying in his front yard.
Du Sault knew of an officer by the same name who worked for the Ridgecrest Police Department in Kern County but needed to verify that he was the Joshua Beard in question. She had a birthdate for a Joshua Beard in the criminal file. On Facebook, she found an article about a Joshua Beard who worked at the Ridgecrest Police Department and a profile for a Joshua Beard who went to the same high school as the Beard in the news clip. After scrolling through years’ worth of his Facebook posts, she came across one where Beard thanked his friends for birthday well wishes. The date matched the birthdate of the Joshua Beard in the criminal file.
“It was a very exciting time driving everywhere, picking files up and realizing that it was working,” says Du Sault. “Our confirmation efforts were working.”
After an intensive, six-month collaboration, all of their work came together in a database of 630 current and former police officers convicted of crimes in the past decade. (It should be noted that the number is an undercount, as it includes only those confirmed as current or former cops. The initial list that had been turned over by the POST was also incomplete, says Du Sault.) A quarter of the cases included in the database had not previously been reported on in the media.
Since the story broke, activists and public officials alike have called for changes to how the state handles officers who are convicted of crimes or engage in serious misconduct. California is one of just five states in the country that don’t decertify officers for misconduct. Almost all employment decisions are left to local departments and police chiefs. That has made possible situations like what Du Sault and Rusch found in McFarland, California where, in the last decade, one of every five local officers had been previously fired, sued for misconduct, or convicted of a crime, including two who eventually became chief.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Attorney General’s office has yet to make a public statement about the project, and Paladino and Lewis say they haven’t heard from Becerra’s office since. “The general consensus from all of the lawyers was it was insane that this letter ever left the Attorney General’s office because the California law is so clear about immunity in this regard for reporters,” says Paladino.
So, what’s next? David Barstow, who became head of the IRP in July, says the program will continue to explore other stories on criminal misconduct by police in California.
Temple says the project teaches several lessons that are important for the future of journalism in California. He hopes the collaborative model employed by the IRP is replicated elsewhere to tackle even bigger and better projects. But also demonstrated by this project, he says, is a more fundamental truth about journalism at UC Berkeley: “The university and the J-School can play a fundamental role in the production of real investigative reporting that is out in the world. It’s not a classroom exercise. That’s important. And that’s what happened here.”
Posted on January 8, 2020 - 1:43pm