When a secret database is tipped to the right journalists, nationwide police reform happens.
Philadelphia lawyer Emily Baker-White was building a database of troubling Facebook posts by law enforcement officials in eight cities. She worried that if word leaked the posts would be deleted. Fellow lawyers had suggested she reach out to Tulsky. They knew and trusted him because they had been sources for the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist during his days as a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Tulsky quickly determined that the racist and violent posts captured by Baker-White should be brought to light. “I looked at three images,” Tulsky said. “I was sold.”
But it would take a lot of reporting to examine the broader questions of where, why and how often such offensive posts were occurring and how they might affect trust in police. When Tulsky and project co-author Emily Hoerner started writing, they weren’t sure what reaction their stories would get. Police had been caught making offensive social media posts in the past and defenders cited a need for those in a stressful job to have free-speech rights to share personal opinions with some expectation of privacy.
Injustice Watch spent a year studying the posts of officers in Philadelphia, the largest of the eight cities. Hoerner investigated the large number of civil rights complaints against officers with posts and how many of those posting were in leadership roles.
“I’ve been a reporter for 40 years,” Tulsky said. “I’ve done some big projects — but I’ve never done anything that remotely had the impact that this did.”
Reporting from the series or the stories themselves appeared in over 600 outlets across the nation, including USA Today, CBS News, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Police chiefs called to verify information, doing their due diligence before taking action. Tulsky, Hoerner and Baker-White continue to hear from journalists from across the U.S. asking how they can replicate the reporting in their own towns.
In Philadelphia alone, the department took action to fire 13 officers, and seven officers whose posts were flagged resigned. In Phoenix, more than 70 officers were disciplined for their social media posts. Prosecutors undertook reviews to determine if the posts would compromise the police as credible witnesses. Amid such concerns, the reporting is having continuing impact on how police departments hire and train cops.
Tulsky and Hoerner think the project helped other nonprofit investigative outlets develop stories about the activities of public figures on Facebook. ProPublica found a secret Facebook group for Border Patrol agents and Reveal reported on cops in extremist Facebook groups.
“We do our work to expose problems,” Tulsky said. “On our best days, we get to see reform happened over time. What we saw here is reforms that happen instantaneously.”
This is the second in a series taking you behind the scenes of stories selected by the Institute for Nonprofit News for INN’s Best of Nonprofit News 2019 because of their high impact. Statewide reporting takes time and money but builds trust between journalists and the public. This news matters! And without your financial support, stories like this go untold. If you would like to support this kind of high-quality reporting, please donate to Injustice Watch or similar newsrooms in your area. From now until Dec. 31, your gift will be doubled by NewsMatch. And a gift to INN will help us nurture and support these newsrooms year-around. All money raised will contribute to journalism that creates change, informs communities and holds those in power accountable.