Fusion’s explosive investigation, “Suspect City,” put Miami Gardens on the map as the stop and frisk capital of America. Of the 110,754 people in the Miami suburb, police stopped and questioned 99,980 people between 2008 and 2013. Not a single one was arrested.
The story by journalists Alice Brennan and Dan Lieberman is a stellar example of meaningful investigative journalism driven by data, elevated by multimedia tools and distinguished by human experience.
The six-month investigation documents a racist policing strategy that a public defender called “stop and frisk on steroids.” Analysis of more than 30,000 pages of field contract reports reveal the police department’s extreme practices. Some residents were stopped and questioned multiple times within minutes of each other. Children were stopped in playgrounds. A five-year-old was labeled as a “suspicious person.”
Fusion’s story began small.
A Miami Herald story made headlines after surveillance video captured Miami Gardens police harassing Earl Sampson, an African American clerk, at a convenience store. Sampson was stopped and questioned over 200 times. The story quickly faded from the public eye, but Brennan’s interest was piqued and the reporters filed a public records request.
With the help of an attorney who determined the most specific and least costly way to request the records, the reporters received thousands of pages of documents for $10.63. The government initially slapped them with $19,000 in processing fees, she said.
Months of waiting for the data wasn’t the main hurdle. The data were in shambles, fields were incomplete and entries were poorly entered, Brennan said.
After cleaning the data, the reporters stepped back and were shocked by what they saw. “Our initial reaction was this can’t be true. It was just way too crazy. It’s just too good to be true,” Brennan said.
It was so astonishing that Brennan, a reporter who had previously documented the New York Police Department’s stop and frisk practices, spent weeks verifying the data. “I would be up at 4 a.m. just wondering, ‘Had I got it right?’”
It took nearly three months for Fusion to get an interview with the police department and confront the new police chief with the findings.
Even though the data were extremely powerful alone, the reporters interviewed whistleblowers in the police department and victims of the stop and frisk policy.
“When people do data stories, they think it’s all about the data,” Brennan said. “You can’t forget that these stories are incredibly intimate human stories.”
Silent City is one of a handful of stories where the data are more extreme than anecdotal evidence, she says.
When Brennan and Lieberman were bogged down in more than 30,000 pages of public records, they often lost sense of the dirt. Brennan frequently chatted with people unfamiliar with the story to maintain perspective.
Successful data journalists should track every detail, including every comma, period or zeros added to datasets. “People will hold you over the fire and ask you why you did what you did,” she says.
“Data are not the story,” she says. “Data back up the story. Humans are the story.”
The story helped clear the records of suspects like Sampson, the man featured in the Miami Herald piece; the police department said it would discontinue its quota policy; and, according to Brennan, the U.S. Department of Justice will launch a full inquiry into the department’s practices.
Media outlets like CNN, the Drudge Report and NPR picked up the story. The weekly public radio program “This American Life” also plans an episode on Miami Gardens.
Still, Brennan says she’s not completely satisfied.
She said that sources interviewed on the street were not shocked by the story’s findings, which she attributed to desensitization to treatment that had become routine.
Still, she hopes journalists will take a comprehensive look at stop and frisk policies throughout the nation, not just at the extremes.
“Journalists throw these stories out there,” she said. “We never know the impact. We just hope someone will notice and something will change.”
Absorb the multimedia investigation here.