The Society of Professional Journalists announced on Friday that ProPublica’s series The NYPD Files, which uncovered abuse and impunity inside the New York Police Department, was a recipient of this year’s Sunshine Award. The annual prize recognizes individuals and groups for their notable contributions to reporting on open government.
ProPublica’s Eric Umansky, Joaquin Sapien, Topher Sanders, Derek Willis, Moiz Syed, Mollie Simon, Lena Groeger, Joshua Kaplan and Lucas Waldron contributed to the series.
ProPublica partner THE CITY won a Sunshine Award for “The Complaint Files NYPD Unions Don’t Want You to See,” an examination of more than 250 civilian reports alleging police abuses, from bullying to brutality. The analysis of the exclusively obtained records was also co-published with WNYC/Gothamist and The Marshall Project.
The ProPublica series started with one question: How does accountability really work for NYPD officers? It became an unprecedented examination of how a veneer of civilian oversight belies the reality that America’s largest police force largely polices itself.
As the series uncovered, allegations about the use of force in the NYPD seldom resulted in serious discipline. In 2018, the most recent year of complete data, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates complaints against NYPD officers, looked into nearly 3,000 allegations of violence; only 73 were ruled to be substantiated. The most severe punishment, loss of vacation days, was meted out to nine officers.
Details were kept secret under 50-a, a state law that had 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 made public thousands of police discipline records that New York had kept secret for decades. Readers can now search police complaints and use the information to request details on cases from the CCRB. ProPublica also made the data available for anyone to download.
Among other issues at the department, the series also found that commanders are promoted despite a history of complaints and misconduct allegations, that officers continue to kill people in crisis with few consequences, and that NYPD commissioners have used their total authority over discipline to set aside recommendations from the CCRB.
The NYPD Files series has resulted in significant moves toward change. A federal judge ruled in favor of allowing disclosure of further records, a ruling that was affirmed by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. New York’s City Council proposed sweeping reforms to reshape the force and increase accountability at the NYPD, including shifting final disciplinary authority away from the commissioner. Another bill in the package would remove NYPD officers as the default responders to emergency calls related to mental health.
See a list of all this year’s Sunshine Award winners here.