The News Leaders Association announced this week that the ProPublica series “The NYPD Files” won its First Amendment Award. The award recognizes the best journalism advancing Freedom of Information principles or overcoming significant resistance to the application of the First Amendment.
The series, which investigated abuse and impunity inside the New York City Police Department, started with one question: How does accountability for NYPD officers really work? It became an unprecedented examination of how a veneer of civilian oversight belies the reality that America’s largest police force largely polices itself.
ProPublica’s Eric Umansky, Joaquin Sapien, Topher Sanders, Derek Willis, Moiz Syed, Mollie Simon, Lena Groeger, Joshua Kaplan and Lucas Waldron contributed to the project.
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 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 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 download by anyone.
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. Prompted by this reporting, in January the New York City Council announced legislation that would reshape the NYPD and strip final disciplinary authority from the commissioner. In March, state legislators also introduced a bill to strip the NYPD commissioner of final authority over disciplinary determinations.
Learn more about the NLA’s First Amendment Award here.