Oakland Police Beat: Investigative Reporting & Data Journalism In The Service Of Transparency, Accountability In Oakland

Oakland Police Department officers detain a man during the Occupy demonstrations in downtown Oakland in 2012. Photo by Eric K Arnold.

Oakland Police Department officers detain a man during the Occupy demonstrations in downtown Oakland in 2012. Photo by Eric K Arnold.

In launching Oakland Police Beat, Oakland Local is taking on a project we think has never been done before–using data journalism and investigative reporting to provide in-depth information and analysis not about crime or homicide victims, but about police accountability. Our project, 18 months in the making, is an independent, data-driven investigative journalism project covering the Oakland Police Department. We used primary source documents, original reporting and data-visualization and coding tools to build one of the first comprehensive public resources on police accountability and officer behaviors.

With Oakland Police Beat, our mission is to produce high-quality investigative reporting, analysis and data that will empower Oaklanders as they advocate for a police department that’s transparent and accountable. We do this not only by creating news stories, interactive data visualizations, videos and databases, but also by making our data freely available so that others can build off of our work. Funding for this project was made possible by grants from The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and The Fund for Investigative Journalism, who supported research on Occupy Oakland that became part of this project.

Why Oakland?

Ranked #3 on the FBI’s annual report on the most dangerous cities, Oakland, CA is well-known for a police department that has long had a reputation as an agency riddled with internal dysfunction and a history of abuse, including corruption, brutality and lack of accountability.

In 2013, the Oakland Police Department went into partial federal receivership after failing to fully adopt reforms mandated by a federal court as part of a 2003 settlement of a police brutality and corruption case, known as the Rough Riders. While progress toward meeting federal requirements has been made in the past two years, after 10 years of effort full compliance is still a ways off. In a report issued in January 2014, the monitor stated that while the city is working to resolve many of the non-compliance issues identified by the federal monitors, a decline in compliance from the past quarter’s report was “a disappointment.” The monitor also stated “there should be more positive movement in a core of approximately seven of the 22 Tasks” that were mandated more than 10 years ago and replaced the consultant supervising working with the police.

In addition to having internal police issues, Oakland is known as one of the cities where being young, male and brown can lead to being stopped — and even fatally shot — by the police. Alan Blueford and Derrick Jones are two of the young men shot by police in the past three years whose deaths were widely protested by the local community, many members of which felt they were racially profiled; in a 2014 report released by the Oakland Police Department — as required by the federal monitor — data showed that while African Americans made up 28 percent of the Oakland population, they comprised 62 percent of nearly 15,000 total police stops during an eight-month period, and were most likely to be stopped on suspicion of committing a crime.

The Oakland Police department also has a long history of being regarded with fear and suspicion by many of the communities it is supposed to serve. In a 2010 study by Pueblo Youth Harvest, 78 percent of the 800 teens surveyed reported that they were afraid of, or distrusted, the police, with 85 percent of African-American youth and 79 percent of Latinos who responded being the most concerned. These issues have led to a culture among low-income residents of Oakland where crime goes under-reported, hurting victims and public safety overall.

For many long-time residents, however, one of the most frustrating aspects of the Oakland Police Department has been the lack of public, transparent, follow-up on shootings by officers, complaints brought against the police, and a lack of information-sharing on issues and cases not mandated by the federal judge overseeing compliance in the Rough Riders settlement. Until now, there has been no ability for the public to easily have insight into basic issues of police accountability, such as how much the city of Oakland has spent over the past few years to settle civil suits brought against the police, how many officers have been sued for excessive force, what the outcomes were, and what consequences an officer might face, if any, for whom the city — without any allegations of wrongdoing — had repeatedly settled civil cases?

How The Project Addresses These Issues

Led by Oakland Police Beat editor Abraham Hyatt, an experienced crime reporter and data journalist working with a dedicated team of researchers, coders and reporters, the Oakland Police Beat team used public data sources to compile in-depth databases of civil cases bought against Oakland police, the complaints, the lawyers and officers involved and the dollar amount of the settlements, We’ve also created a database and search tools where users can look up specific officers to see if they were involved in settled lawsuits, the shootings they have been involved in, and the recognition, promotions and awards they have received from OPD.

Using these datasets, we’ve crafted stories that shed light on some of the questions Oaklanders have long had about the costs of settled cases, issues of officer shootings and police brutality, and and other related issues in the police department.

Because the stories are fact-based, research-driven, and painstakingly checked, we stand confidently behind them, with the caveat that our research is only as good as what the state, the city, and the county provided us.

In many ways, this project owes a debt to Laura and Chris Amico and their innovative site Homicide Watch DC. Seeing how Laura and Chris meticulously used both in-depth courthouse reporting and data visualization to create a site that goes into depth on DC homicide cases, we wondered if we could take that same detail-oriented approach and turn it inside out.

What if, instead of tracking shooting victims, we tracked cases brought against the police? What if we could assemble a picture, using that approach, that would tell us which officers were involved in the most contested shootings, what the outcomes were, how the department handled them, and if or how those actions affected the officers’ careers?

The site you are on now — with its original reporting, carefully culled datasets, and vibrant images and data visualizations — is the outcome of that work. Build in WordPress by our webcrafter maiki interi (interi.org), using custom post types, the site is fully open source, with data reusable under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

Heartfelt thanks go to The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and The Fund for Investigative Journalism and their judges and boards, for the support that made this project possible. Kevin Davis and Lisa Williams of The Investigative News Network, Jo Ellen Kaiser of The Media Consortium, Sandy Close of New America Media, Steve Katz of Mother Jones and Bruce Koons, Julia McEvoy, and Katrina Schwartz of KQED were all resources as we sought to shape and conceptualize the project. First Amendment attorney David Greene of the Electronic Freedom Frontier, and Rebecca Farmer, Communications Director, ACLU of Northern California, were important resources as we sought to understand the best way to present records and comply with the California Supreme Court’s Copley finding.

Immense credit for this project goes to editor Abraham Hyatt, who came aboard at the very early stages as we sought funding for a big vision, and who has so persistently shepherded it to launch — writing, assigning, and editing all of the stories — and the data — collected here. maki interi, our webcrafter since 2009, was a steady and persistent architect of the site, working with Abraham to battle challenges and get it all live. Laura McCamy, who worked on the database, as well as reporting stories, Meg Bertoni, Alisen Boada, Kelly Baker, and Kevin Rychel all made important contributions to getting this material together. Rin Kelly, our Police Beat Investigative Fellow, played an indispensable role in making our databases — and much of our other research — come together. Michelle Fitzhugh-Craig and Jennifer Inez Ward had input into early discussions of this project. And Laura McCamy, Barbara Grady, Suzanne Yada, were all valued readers, with a very big thanks to Leslie Griffy for her close reading of stories and editorial suggestions.

With enormous effort and focus, we’ve created open source data sets that allow you to track and read about the Oakland police in a way that wasn’t previously possible. Based on that research, we’ve crafted stories that answer questions about police accountability in Oakland in a way that we hope answers questions long-asked in Oakland.

The next step in this journey, now that our data and the first set of stories are live is to get feedback and support from you, our readers and community.