ProPublica’s series “The NYPD Files,” which uncovered abuse and impunity inside the New York Police Department, won the John Jay College/Harry Frank Guggenheim Award for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting. The multimedia package was recognized in the “series” category of the prize, which is administered by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College.
ProPublica’s Eric Umansky, Joaquin Sapien, Topher Sanders, Derek Willis, Moiz Syed, Mollie Simon, Lena Groeger, Joshua Kaplan, Lucas Waldron and Adriana Gallardo contributed to the project.
The series’ first story, by deputy managing editor Umansky, began last Halloween, when his wife, Sara Pekow, and their daughter were headed home after a night of trick-or-treating and saw an unmarked police car hit a Black teenager who was running with a group. Miraculously unharmed, the teen got away. Police then hauled away a completely different group of Black boys — a 15-year-old, a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old — who were detained for hours before being released without explanation. When Umansky tried to find out whether the Police Department would investigate the cops’ actions, he discovered all the ways the NYPD is shielded from accountability.
Umansky built up sources at the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates complaints against NYPD officers, and learned how allegations about the use of force seldom resulted in serious discipline. In 2018, the most recent year of complete data, the CCRB looked into nearly 3,000 allegations of violence; only 73 were substantiated. The most severe punishment, loss of vacation days, was meted out to nine officers.
Details were kept secret by 50-a, a state law that has barred the public from seeing police discipline records. But in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, nationwide calls for reform prompted New York legislators to repeal the law. Soon after, Umansky filed a request for the records of every police officer who had at least one substantiated complaint. He had the data days later. A team of developers — including Willis, Syed and Ken Schwencke, the editor of ProPublica’s news applications team — moved quickly to create an online database that could be searched by readers.
The database, called “The NYPD Files,” made public thousands of police discipline records that New York kept secret for decades. It provided an unprecedented picture of civilians’ complaints of abuse by NYPD officers. According to the records, more than 200 officers still working at the NYPD have had five or more substantiated allegations against them. There are nearly 5,000 allegations of “physical force” and more than 600 of “gun pointed.” Readers can search police complaints and use the information to request details on cases from the CCRB. ProPublica also made the data available for download by anyone.
ProPublica went on to use the disciplinary data we published to do more crucial stories. Reporters Sapien and Sanders worked with Willis to identify several high-ranking NYPD commanders who had been promoted again and again despite long records of serious civilian complaints. Umansky and research fellow Simon showed that the NYPD frequently withholds evidence from civilian investigations into police abuse. Developer Groeger, engagement reporter Gallardo, Umansky and Simon detailed how NYPD commissioners have used their total authority over discipline to set aside recommendations from the CCRB and even officers’ own guilty pleas. Umansky and visual investigations producer Waldron explored how officers keep killing people in crisis with few consequences. Kaplan and Sapien revealed the even greater lack of accountability that exists for officers working undercover to police the sex trade; they have repeatedly been accused of making false arrests and engaging in sexual misconduct. The consequences fall almost entirely on the city’s people of color, as almost everyone arrested for prostitution or soliciting is non-white.
The “NYPD Files” has resulted in significant moves toward change. After unions sued to keep discipline records secret, a federal judge cited our data and asked union lawyers, “Are you asking to put that particular genie back in the bottle?” Then she ruled in favor of allowing disclosure of further records. New York’s City Council also recently proposed sweeping reforms to reshape and increase accountability at the NYPD, including shifting final disciplinary authority away from the commissioner.
Following our investigation of how prostitution is policed in New York City, the Brooklyn district attorney announced he is moving to vacate more than 200 warrants related to prostitution and dismiss the underlying charges. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed a bill repealing an anti-loitering law that had been used to justify prostitution arrests because of the clothes people wore or how they stood on the street, which came to be called the “walking while trans” ban.
See a list of all the winners here.