TPM Cafe: Opinion

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

On May 24, 2020, federal district court judge Robert L. Hinkle issued a sweeping rebuke to what he called Florida’s pay-to-vote system in a case reviewing the 2018 change to Florida’s Constitution that was intended to restore voting rights to ex-felons. Judge Hinkle ruled last month that Florida’s continued disenfranchisement of certain former felons was unconstitutional and the case is now on appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Appeals Court has signaled that it will expedite the case

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The following is an excerpt from “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics by Steve Benen. It is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

Last week was an unpleasant one for the White House. Donald Trump and his team continued to watch the coronavirus crisis intensify; the administration suffered another round of legal defeats; the president’s re-election campaign faced pushback over a needlessly dangerous vanity exercise in Tulsa; and John Bolton exposed Trump as, among other things, a leader who always prioritizes politics over policy.

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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

The rise of white supremacy extremism is a global phenomenon and the United States is its chief exporter. While the threat posed by radical right wing ideologues, the milieu most white supremacists inhabit, had been on the rise prior to the Trump administration, it is now in overdrive. Responsibility, partly, lies at the feet of the President who has used social media to invoke tactics deployed by racist police chiefs and politicians who openly used tools of the state to murder, maim, and malign black Americans. Today, sadly, the echoes of the past do not reverberate solely through the bell jar of social media. The deployment of tear gas, soldiers, and wanton brutality by organs of the federal, state, and local government against citizens who have peacefully opposed oppression and white supremacy render stark the stakes at hand. While the raw emotion, tears, and rage for George Floyd’s tragic death were consuming American streets, the Trump administration used the elements of national power better deployed against overseas adversaries like ISIS and al-Qa’ida (AQ) against the grieving.

White supremacists have carried out the most vicious attacks on U.S. soil since the beginning of the Trump administration. Robert Bowers’ deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killed 11 Jewish worshipers. One year later, in El Paso, Texas, a white supremacist killed 22 people, taking aim at Hispanics. These attacks and many others led to calls for a domestic terrorism law. While such a law, if carefully constructed, could help in countering the threat posed by the radical right, one wonders, especially in light of the invocation of the Insurrection Act of 1807 and threat to designate Antifa as a terrorist group how new laws could be misapplied by the Trump administration. More appropriate is a re-examination of how counterterrorism policies, tools, and nurturing of bilateral relationships could be applied to the transnational dimensions of the radical right threat.

First, the United States should expand its use of sanctions against overseas radical right-wing groups. While there is great appetite to do so — more than 500,000 people have petitioned the White House to sanction U.S. based groups like the KKK as terrorist enterprises — the legal mechanism does not exist. The United States Department of State and Treasury can only designate foreign terrorist organizations unless a domestic group is overseen by an overseas entity. Unfortunately, the United States has only designated one radical right-wing group, the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM). On April 6, 2020, the U.S. Department of State sanctioned the RIM pursuant to E.O. 13224. Scores of other groups remain ripe for designation, many of whom, like the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division, have extensive overseas networks. It is critical that both the State and Treasury Department sanction these groups — doing so will cripple their finances and provide the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) the capability to arrest radical right-wing financiers for providing material support to white supremacists.

Second, the United States government must increase its overseas intelligence collection against white supremacist groups. This recommendation is inextricably linked to the first. The State and Treasury Departments must have solid intelligence to use their sanction authorities. The lack of designations is possibly indicative of the fact that the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) isn’t harnessing Central Intelligence and National Security Agency human and technical assets. U.S. intelligence collection is guided by the National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF). Collecting more intelligence on transnational white supremacist networks can only occur if modifications are made to the NIPF. Elevating the intelligence collection on key individuals, groups, and finances that compose the international white supremacist community will allow for policies to be constructed commenserate to the threat. That will require the agency heads and policymakers who guide IC collection priorities to make collection against white supremacist networks a top tier target. At that point, the CIA, NSA, and other intelligence agencies can devote more resources to tracking the overseas-based white supremacist threat.

While the threat posed by radical right wing ideologues, the milieu most white supremacists inhabit, had been on the rise prior to the Trump administration, it is now in overdrive. "

Third, given the documented linkages between domestic and overseas white supremacist personalities, the United States must up its game in sharing information with partner entities, like the European Union (EU). The Soufan Center’s September 2019 report on white supremacy extremism, for instance, documented links between an American citizen, Matthew Heimbach, who was one of the organizers of the Charlottesville Unite the Right Rally, and the RIM. Recent reports suggest, however, that the U.S. government has been reluctant to share information on the radical right-wing menace with its EU counterparts. The lack of information sharing is particularly dangerous when it comes to transnationally linked white-supremacist groups, like the Atomwaffen Division, which has ties to organizations based in Russia, the UK, and Germany. The EU may have key pieces of information that could help U.S. law enforcement unravel white supremacist groups at home while the U.S. may possess vital intelligence that could do the same for the EU. Foreign government provided information may also have the added benefit of allowing both the EU and U.S. governments the opportunity to wield their sanction tools more effectively. Terrorist designations carried out by the EU and U.S. competent authorities will often include foreign government information.

Fourth, white supremacists in the United States and overseas are meeting in the virtual world of gaming. In 2020, Conor Climo, a member of the Atomwaffen Division, pleaded guilty to planning attacks against a Jewish synagogue and LGBTQ-friendly bar. As the case against Climo evolved, it became publicly known that he communicated over online gaming platforms with a member of the overseas-based Feuerkreig Division — a neo-Nazi group. Extremists communicating over online games, while not novel, is understudied. U.S. law enforcement should engage consistently with gaming companies, especially with their content moderation and compliance shops. There is a vital overseas aspect to possible U.S. government law enforcement engagement since one of the world’s largest gaming companies, Riot, is a Chinese owned company. Racism and hatred over myriad gaming platforms makes for fertile recruitment grounds for white supremacists.

There are many ways to honor the spirit of George Floyd. One that can happen now is by taking the fight overseas to dismantle white supremacist networks. "

Fifth, the U.S. government should amp up its capacity building programs and policies dedicated to countering white supremacy extremism. At home, the Department of Homeland Security has allocated 10 million dollars to fund grants dedicated to tackling extremism in the United States. When decisions are made on what to fund, DHS should allocate a significant amount of those funds to domestic programs dedicated to countering white supremacy extremism. At the same time, the State Department should expand its foreign assistance programming efforts to include assistance to countries where white supremacist activity is present. In the past, the State Department funded the travel of individuals like Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi, to speak about the steps he took to leave the white power movement. Deploying former extremists lends authenticity to programming initiatives that is often difficult to achieve.

Sixth, the United States has an extensive screening traveler program that was put in place post 9/11. More attention should be given to travelers who have gone to hotspots, like Ukraine, where a wide range of white supremacist actors have fine-tuned their combat skills. In 2019, the Soufan Center documented that 17,000 individuals, including U.S. citizens, went to fight in the Ukrainian conflict. U.S. based Atomwaffen member, Kaleb Cole, for instance traveled to Ukraine. The ease with which individuals like Cole can travel and nurture overseas white supremacist contacts is a threat to national security. Since 9/11, U.S. traveler and immigration policies have overwhelmingly focused on the ISIS and AQ Salafi-jihadist threat. The U.S. government should recalibrate these policies, so they are attuned to white supremacist related travel.

Full implementation of these policies will require a paradigm shift — one that embraces the notion that threats to national security can come in shades of white. Some senior policymakers in the Trump administration are certain to resist, but many of these ideas can be implemented by career professionals who, by definition, put politics, ideology, and demagoguery aside. There are many ways to honor the spirit of George Floyd. One that can happen now is by taking the fight overseas to dismantle white supremacist networks. This is the least the U.S. government can do — especially when so many international white supremacists, like Anders Breivik and Brenton Tarrant, have pointed to U.S. influences.


Jason M. Blazakis is Professor of Practice at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS), where he also serves as the Director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism (CTEC). He is also a Senior Fellow at the Soufan Center. You can follow him on Twitter @jason_blazakis.

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This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

Last week’s elections in Georgia were an unmitigated disaster — a complete election meltdown that did little to quell fears about how the pandemic will impact voting in November. Some voters never received their absentee ballot, there were problems with election machines and in-person voting lines were disturbingly long. Countless Georgians, disproportionately people of color, waited hours to cast a ballot. 

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This story first appeared at ProPublica, and was produced in partnership with the MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On Aug. 20, 2018, the first day of a federal police surveillance trial, I discovered that the Memphis Police Department was spying on me.

The ACLU of Tennessee had sued the MPD, alleging that the department was in violation of a 1978 consent decree barring surveillance of residents for political purposes.

I’m pretty sure I wore my pink gingham jacket — it’s my summer go-to when I want to look professional. I know I sat on the right side of the courtroom, not far from a former colleague at the city’s daily newspaper. I’d long suspected that I was on law enforcement’s radar, simply because my work tends to center on the most marginalized communities, not institutions with the most power.

One of the first witnesses called to the stand: Sgt. Timothy Reynolds, who is white. To get intel on activists and organizers, including those in the Black Lives Matter movement, he’d posed on Facebook as a “man of color,” befriending people and trying to infiltrate closed circles.

Projected onto a giant screen in the courtroom was a screenshot of people Reynolds followed on Facebook.

My head was bent as I wrote in my reporter’s notebook. “What does this entry indicate?” ACLU attorney Amanda Strickland Floyd asked.

“I was following Wendi Thomas,” Reynolds replied. “Wendi C. Thomas.”

I sat up.

“And who is Wendi Thomas?” Floyd asked.

She, he replied, used to write for The Commercial Appeal. In 2014, I left the paper after being a columnist for 11 years.

It’s been more than a year since a judge ruled against the city, and I’ve never gotten a clear answer on why the MPD was monitoring me. Law enforcement also was keeping tabs on three other journalists whose names came out during the trial. Reynolds testified he used the fake account to monitor protest activity and follow current events connected to Black Lives Matter.

My sin, as best I can figure, was having good sources who were local organizers and activists, including some of the original plaintiffs in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the city.

In the days since cellphone video captured white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin squeezing the life out of George Floyd, a black man, residents in dozens of cities across the country have exercised their First Amendment rights to protest police brutality.

Here in Memphis, where two-thirds of the population is black and 1 in 4 lives below the poverty line, demonstrators have chanted, “No justice, no peace, no racist police!”

The most recent protests were sparked by the killings of Floyd and of Breonna Taylor, a black woman gunned down in her home by Louisville, Kentucky, police in March. But in Memphis, like elsewhere, the seeds of distrust between activists and police were planted decades ago. And law enforcement has nurtured these seeds ever since.

A Long History of Spying

In the mid-1960s, the MPD launched a domestic intelligence unit to spy not just on activists, but also on teachers’ meetings, a college black student union and labor organizers. That included Martin Luther King Jr., who came to Memphis in the spring of 1968 to stand in solidarity with underpaid and mistreated black city sanitation workers.

The police surveillance wasn’t conducted just with wiretaps and long lenses, but with snitches planted within local organizations, including spies planted by then-Mayor Henry Loeb, an anti-union segregationist, among sanitation workers who wanted to join a union.

In the iconic photo taken just moments after a gunman shot King on the Lorraine Motel balcony, several people are seen pointing in the direction from which the bullet came. Crouched over King’s body is a man holding a towel to the gaping wound on King’s face. The man, rarely identified in photos, is Marrell “Mac” McCollough, a Memphis cop who was assigned to infiltrate a militant activist group hated by Memphis police. There’s no evidence he was involved with King’s assassination.

Some, including members of King’s family, have long speculated that the assassination was not the work of a lone gunman but orchestrated by federal law enforcement agencies (the FBI famously monitored and harassed King). Both a U.S. House committee independent review in 1979 and a Department of Justice review in 2000 found no basis for this. Still, in 2002, the National Civil Rights Museum, which sits where the motel was, added to its permanent exhibits “Lingering Questions,” which contains hundreds of pieces of evidence, including the bullet plucked from King’s body. One of the questions (that the exhibit does not definitively answer): “Was the Memphis Police Department part of the conspiracy?”

In 1976, the ACLU of Tennessee sued the city, alleging it had violated residents’ First Amendment rights by maintaining records that “contained unverified information and gossip which related exclusively to the exercise of lawful and peaceful activities,” and, according to the complaint, “served no lawful or valid law enforcement purpose.”

A judge agreed and in 1978 signed the Kendrick consent decree, the first such decree in the country, which barred law enforcement from surveilling protesters for political purposes.

Many of today’s protesters know about that ruling, because in 2017 the ACLU of Tennessee sued the city, alleging that police were violating the consent decree by again illegally spying on residents who were exercising their First Amendment rights.

In 2016, protesters had a series of high-profile demonstrations including a May protest at the Memphis Zoo, a spontaneous protest against police brutality in July in which hundreds blocked traffic on the Interstate 40 bridge and a December “die-in” in the mayor’s front yard. After those, according to the lawsuit, the city started a blacklist of residents barred from City Hall without an escort.

It contained the names not just of those who had been arrested at demonstrations, but many who had not, including the mother of Darrius Stewart, a black teen police shot and killed in 2015 following a traffic stop, and a white grandmother who’d made it through a security blockade outside Graceland while black protesters were held back.

Reynolds’ sleuthing made up a good part of the joint intelligence briefings, which were shared with law enforcement agencies and some of the city’s largest corporations, such as FedEx and AutoZone, at the businesses’ request. (Facebook told the MPD it violated the social platform’s terms of service by creating fake accounts and impersonating others.)

In court, the city argued that the surveillance — videotaping demonstrations, using social media collators to sweep up posts about police and Black Lives Matters supporters — was necessary to protect public safety.

But while joint intelligence briefings and internal reports were ostensibly to keep track of potential threats, they were littered with unfounded rumors, misidentified photos of activists and surveillance reports of events that posed no clear threat, such as a black food truck festival.

And while it’s true that the pen is mightier than the sword, there’s nothing about me that screams threat, unless critical reporting on public policy and public officials, including Mayor Jim Strickland, counts.

In 2017, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism covered the anniversary of the bridge protest, but when I tried to get an interview with the mayor, I was rebuffed.

“Objectivity dictates if the mayor does one on one interviews,” wrote Ursula Madden, the city’s chief communications officer in an email. “You have demonstrated, particularly on social media, that you are not objective when it comes to Mayor Strickland.”

I replied that I was disappointed and asked her to point me to any errors of fact I’d made in my coverage. She did not respond.

Nagging Suspicions

I’ve worked as a journalist in Memphis for the last 17 years. I’ve never been a victim of police brutality, but few of my interactions with police have inspired confidence.

In 2014, while I was at The Commercial Appeal, a reader threatened by email to rape me after a column I wrote about Confederate Gen. Nathan B. Forrest. I reluctantly reported the threat to police, but the investigation felt lackluster and no suspect was ever identified.

It nagged at me, and years later, when I tried to learn more about what steps the detective assigned to my case had taken, department officials refused to share any information, even the details of their interview with me.

In July 2015, I covered the demonstrations that followed Stewart’s death by police. I interviewed the teen’s father and posted the video on Instagram.

A few days later, a cousin I hadn’t seen in years stopped by. He wanted to take a quick tour through downtown Memphis. It was dark and rainy. He’s black with long locks and a beard.

I wanted to be a good host, but before I left the house, I tweeted my hesitation: “My cousin is in town for work, leaving tomorrow. He wants to see Downtown. My 1st thought: Do I want to risk an encounter w/ police?”

My fear was not without cause: Less than two weeks earlier, Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman, had been forced out of her car by an aggressive Texas cop who’d stopped her for failing to signal while changing lanes. A dashboard camera video caught her arrest and three days later, she was found dead in a jail cell. Authorities said she died by suicide.

I was thinking about what happened to Bland and what had happened to Stewart, who had been shot to death by police following a traffic stop the same month.

Just a few miles from home, flashing lights filled my rearview mirror. I pulled over, heart pounding.

I hit record on my cellphone and placed it on the dashboard. You can’t see the officer’s face in the video, which I still have, but you can hear our voices over the windshield wipers. The officer, who was black, asked for my license. I handed it to him and asked why I’d been stopped.

He said my driver’s side headlight was out, but when he leaned over to tap it, he said it was back on.

“I’m not trying to be Sandra Bland tonight,” I told the officer.

The Memphis officer said he was trying to be a nice guy. “You think I want to stand out here in the rain?” he can be heard saying on video.

“Ms. Thomas,” he said, reading my license. “Ms. Wendi Thomas.” I wondered if he recognized my byline. I offered to show him what I had just tweeted but he declined. “Your headlights are working now,” he said. “You be safe, OK?”

“Yeah, but what happens when somebody else pulls me over?” I asked.

“I don’t know what somebody else is gonna do,” he said, “but I know that if you do the right things, if you’re doing the right things, then nothing else can happen but good.”

I now wonder if the police had been following me. The police department did not answer questions for this story.

But at the time, I was paralyzed by fear and wanted to avoid being pulled over again.

I took side streets home.

Why Were You Following Me?

After Reynolds left the stand after naming me as someone he had followed, the judge took a short recess. I headed outside the courtroom and saw Reynolds headed to the elevator.

I followed him. When the doors closed, I stuck out my hand and introduced myself. I asked: Why were you following me on social media?

Although it was chilly in the courtroom, Reynolds was sweating. He said he couldn’t talk about it.

Two days after Reynolds’ testimony, I filed a public records request with the city of Memphis, asking for all joint intelligence briefings, emails or other documents that referenced me or any of the three other journalists that the MPD was following on social media.

Four hundred and thirty three days later, the city produced the records — and I still don’t understand what would make police see me as a threat worthy of surveillance in the name of public safety.

Contained in the documents: A screenshot of a Facebook post that I made on Jan. 28, 2016, while I was on a fellowship at Harvard University. I’d shared a notice about a grassroots coalition meeting to be held that day.

In a joint intelligence briefing was a screenshot of a tweet I’d been tagged in. The original tweet, which at the time police captured it had 11 likes and one retweet, was itself a screenshot of an offensive image a Memphis police officer had allegedly posted on Snapchat.

In another police email was a February 2017 tweet I sent about an upcoming protest, which had been announced on Facebook. It got two likes.

The city of Memphis is pushing back against the judge’s ruling. Its lawyers have asked the court to modify the consent decree, contending that the city can’t participate in a Trump administration public safety partnership if it isn’t allowed to share intelligence with federal agencies.

My battles with the city of Memphis didn’t end with the lawsuit, unfortunately.

In 2018, I was trying to figure out which corporations had answered the mayor’s call to financially subsidize police operations by funneling $6.1 million to the city through a secretive nonprofit, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.

Strickland wouldn’t divulge the companies’ identities, but he realized that public records I’d requested would. So the mayor’s staff, in conjunction with the Crime Commission and another secretive nonprofit, came up with a plan to release the companies’ names to local journalists before releasing the records to me, I learned through emails released in conjunction with a 2018 public records lawsuit against the Crime Commission.

And this year, I was forced to sue the city after it refused to include me on its media email advisory list despite repeated requests.

The city of Memphis did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

My experiences have shaped the way my newsroom has covered more recent protests, including those in Memphis since Floyd’s death.

A guide on covering protests from the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy notes, “Understand how police use news coverage to surveil black communities. Don’t allow police to use you, or your coverage, to do their jobs.”

We applied these principles to our recent coverage of a civil disobedience training that drew more than 350 people. While we know the names of the people we talked to, if participants weren’t comfortable using their whole name or showing their entire face, we protected their identity.

After all, I know how it feels to know that the police are watching you.


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This story first appeared at ProPublica. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis has drawn historic levels of interest in police misconduct and drawn condemnation from law enforcement leaders nationwide.

As a reporter covering law enforcement for the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, and now in partnership with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, I use investigative reporting techniques to strengthen police accountability. Other journalists do the same. But, in truth, any citizen can apply the same methods to ensure the law enforcement system they’re funding is serving them well.

Police culture can be insular and tough to penetrate. But I’ve been surprised by how often it’s possible, though time consuming, to expose important issues by requesting and examining records and data from police departments and other government agencies and engaging citizens and key leaders. So here are five techniques concerned citizens, journalists and policymakers can use to examine police conduct in their communities.

1. Understand the policies and laws that govern police conduct.

If you’re alarmed by what you saw in Minneapolis, or other recent incidents of apparent police misconduct, the first step is to find out if the agency in question has a written policy on the use of force. Does the policy dictate when officers should or shouldn’t use force? What tactics are they allowed to use? Is there any rule against choking a suspect?

It’s important to know if the officers involved were following the policies and procedures that are supposed to guide their behavior. Police actions that strike an onlooker as inappropriate may actually be within a department’s rules. It’s possible the rules themselves are inconsistent with best practices elsewhere.

Ask the department for its policies on the practices that concern you, like restraining suspects or the use of pepper spray or Tasers. You may also need to request rules set by a county or state authority. Ask for written copies. You may be required to file a formal public records request, which I will describe below. And if there is no existing written policy, that might be something worth questioning itself.

If you’re having trouble understanding a policy, try running it by an attorney, academic, elected official or a journalist in your community.

How I did it: I did a deep dive into policies about drug testing after a police captain was killed in a car crash in 2016, and I exposed that he was drunk and on drugs at the time. I spoke to his chief and learned their department didn’t have a policy for random drug testing. I wondered why that was the case and looked to the state attorney general’s office, which sets many police rules. The rules allowed departments to choose whether they wanted to do random testing, and my reporting identified more than 100 that did not. After our story, the state attorney general mandated random drug testing for cops across the state.

2. You are entitled to public records that can show whether rules are being followed. Get them.

Your tax dollars pay for just about everything a police department does, which includes generating tons of reports, dispatch logs, video recordings and data about what officers do every day. Any citizen is entitled to see those public records to understand how the government works.

The agency may say the public records law does not allow you to have access to some documents — information about confidential informants and medical records, for example. The laws that dictate what’s considered public vary by state, so check out the national guide by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Information the agency considers off limits may also be redacted, and it may take time to get a response.

Even with the hassles and limitations, public records laws are empowering and I’ve been surprised by how much I can obtain. My policy is always to ask and make a records clerk explain why I can’t have taxpayer funded records. Follow up to ensure important requests aren’t lost or ignored. Assume you should be able to see everything. Your state’s public records law may even include a presumption that records are open and exemptions are an exception. You may run into roadblocks that you can’t overcome on your own. In some cases, journalism organizations have had to sue to obtain public records. Your budget may not allow for an attorney, but some states have mediators that you can go to if you think your request is being wrongly denied.

It’s striking how much information the government collects but then does not review. So you might be the first person to ask for a particular body of records and put them together to identify an important trend which you can share with leaders who weren’t paying attention to the issue. Your local journalists may also be very interested in the information you have gathered.

Sometimes it’s hard to even know which records exist. That’s where documents commonly known as records retention schedules come in handy. Government agencies use these to track which records they keep and how long they hold onto them. Use the schedules to help you see what you might be able to obtain. These are available all over the country. Just for fun, I looked up the city of Los Angeles — they call them records disposition schedules and found them for agencies ranging from the Police Department to the zoo. The agency of interest to you might use a different name for the document, so call them and ask if they have a written guide that shows which records they maintain and for how long.

How I did it: I started investigating police car chases after I saw the government keeps summaries of those incidents, including how many people are arrested or injured. I saw I could add up those figures and see if the benefits of the chases outweighed the risks and harm. I discovered that chases in recent years usually didn’t end with an arrest, and that lots of people get hurt, including cops and bystanders.

If you’re interested in scrutinizing the type of misconduct we saw in Minneapolis, you could request use of force reports. New Jersey made those public a few years ago, and Newark Star-Ledger journalistsused them to great effect. ProPublica has that data available here for a fee.

If I were investigating a case of violence by the police I’d ask for:

  • The use of force reports filed by the officers involved.
  • Related incident reports.
  • Computer-assisted dispatch reports.
  • 911 phone call recordings.
  • Body-worn and vehicle-mounted camera recordings.

I might also request policies that dictate how an agency handles complaints against officers. Some states consider substantiated complaints against individual officers to be public records, so you could request them, depending on where you live. WNYC has a helpful breakdown of where that information is public. If you’re looking for video from police body cameras, the Reporters Committee has a guide that shows the places where those are considered public. If you want to obtain recordings of 911 calls, they have a guide for those, too.

You could also be more general and ask the relevant department for substantiated internal affairs complaints alleging excessive force in the past year or so, if those are public in your state. Departments might keep summary data on internal affairs complaints, so ask for the most recent copy of that, too.

3. Identify the power players and engage them.

Engaging law enforcement leaders is essential to understanding policing, and their involvement is key to fixing problems. My access and experience as a white man who works for a news organization may be different than someone else’s experience. It also depends on who you talk to and their openness to criticism. But I think we stand the best chance of a good outcome if we deal with each other respectfully.

Many policing issues are handled at the local, county or state level. Part of your work will involve figuring out who is responsible for the issue you’re concerned about.

“All policing is local,” former Milwaukee police Chief Edward A. Flynn told me. Like many cities, Milwaukee is also experiencing unrest and criticism of the police. Flynn, a well-known law enforcement leader, encouraged conversations between citizens and cops, possibly aided by a neutral third party like a local faith leader.

“The key to changing policing is on the ground level,” he said. He added that it helps for citizens to praise the good work they see from their officers. He encouraged the public to consider crime statistics when scrutinizing police tactics.

I have found that the police themselves are often open to talking to me about the problems in their profession. Many I have talked to feel bad when things go wrong.

How I did it: I’ve been amazed at who is willing to talk to me when I simply take the time to ask. As part of my investigation into police car chases, I talked to a former cop who lost her police officer husband when his vehicle was struck during a high-speed pursuit. I was touched by the way she took hours from her busy life to tell me some of her most painful memories and share her insights as a former cop.

I took my findings to the attorney general, the state’s largest police union and to lawmakers who vowed action. “It appears to me there’s a lot more harm done than good right now,” one of them said about the high-speed incidents.

“If the community has an issue either positive or negative with their law enforcement, then they should definitely have a conversation with the mayor, council and police chief,” said New Jersey Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, a former cop who has participated in community discussion about police issues.

Contact information for law enforcement leaders is often available online. They may regularly attend meetings that are open to the public.

4. Presenting findings in a fair and persuasive manner is a powerful way to spur reform.

Show police leaders the problem that concerns you, using specific examples and quantifying the damage broadly. Show them the harm. Be careful to be fair. Frame the violations by showing how they go against policies or laws or best practices. Back up what you’re saying with the evidence you’ve acquired.

How I did it: To highlight the dangers of police car chases, I introduced readers to Eric Larson, a young father killed when his car was hit by a motorcyclist fleeing police. Then I quantified the harm based on the records I had obtained: “New Jersey police pursuits killed at least 55 people in the past decade and injured more than 2,500.”

Remember that there’s always a different view to your perspective. Integrate it into your presentation if it is legitimate. Acknowledging the counterpoints helps you focus and ask tougher questions. In the car chase story, I made sure to also note incidents in which police chased a suspected killer and men wanted in connection to a shooting. Sometimes police chase violent criminals, but is it worthwhile for cops to chase someone for a traffic violation?

Policing is tough work, and there are times when cops use justified force. Differentiate how the issue you identified deviates from what’s appropriate.

5. Follow up relentlessly until change is made.

Change is incremental and can take years. You will likely have to repeat yourself and persist in your efforts. But if you’ve found an issue of serious public importance — like the use of force incidents we’ve seen lately from the police — there may be ongoing examples you can point to as you make your case to decision-makers.

It may be worthwhile to reach out to local journalists with what you’ve found. News outlets often have a tip line you can call. Or, find a reporter who covers similar issues and call or email them with what you’ve found. I take calls like this frequently and look forward to them. Academics who study criminal justice may also be interested. You can look them up at your local college or university. When reaching out to reporters or academics, keep it brief and focus on the facts.

The wave of protests is hitting home for many people, including in my newsroom in New Jersey. On Monday, police arrested my Asbury Park Press colleague Gustavo Martínez Contreras after he filmed officers tackling two minors to the ground in Asbury Park.

I’m continuing to investigate police accountability problems in New Jersey this year in partnership with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. If you have a tip for me, please share it.

If you have questions about applying the suggestions in this column, please email me at And if you find anything interesting as you start to investigate law enforcement practices, please let me know. I may want to follow up or promote your work online.


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