Protecting the Blue

Protecting the Blue

Organisation: Reuters (United States)

Publication Date: 04/07/2017


Size of team/newsroom:large


Amid civil rights protests over alleged police abuses in the United States, including shootings of unarmed black subjects, this Reuters investigation found that cities commonly bargain away police accountability when negotiating union contracts. The project, based on an in-depth examination of 82 police union contracts, found that powerful unions use their political might to cement contracts that provide a shield of protection to officers accused of misdeeds. Many contracts also erect barriers to residents complaining of abuse. Among the protections: Most of the contracts call for police departments to erase disciplinary records, some after just six months, making it difficult to fire officers with a history of abuses. Some allow officers to forfeit sick leave or vacation time rather than serve disciplinary suspensions. Some set time limits for citizens to file complaints against officers – some as short as 30 days. During misconduct investigations, it’s common for accused officers to review the investigative file before they are interrogated, an accommodation not offered to their accusers. This project, by Reuters reporter Reade Levinson, had its genesis in a watchdog journalism class during Levinson’s senior year at Stanford University. The class was collaborating with the Reuters data journalism team on a project about police officers’ use of excessive force. Levinson, laying the groundwork for her upcoming summer internship with the Reuters team, became interested in the role of police unions in protecting officers accused of abuses. Shortly after arriving at Reuters in June 2016, she informed her editor that she was well on her way to collecting police union contracts from the largest U.S. cities and had begun building her own database from the fine print.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

The data collection effort is what makes this project innovative – and impactful. Other media had reported anecdotally about the role of specific police unions in protecting officers accused of abuse, but no journalist had compiled a comprehensive store of contracts, read the fine print and categorized and summarized the contract provisions to reveal the breadth of the protections afforded to officers. Its main impact was raising awareness about the scope and breadth of the union protections. When Reuters began its investigation, cities in the midst of negotiations often didn’t realize many of the barriers they faced were part of a larger trend in police contracts. And many citizens who were injured by police weren’t aware that the police contract had an impact on the investigation proceedings.

Technologies used for this project:

Excel, Document Cloud, Tableau
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