In Oakland, California, the police loom large. Not only does the city have one of the nation's highest crime rates, the department's track record has been muddied by allegations of corruption and brutality.
Most notoriously, in 2000, a group of officers known as the Riders was accused in a civil rights lawsuit of kidnapping, planting evidence, and brutality, leading to a negotiated settlement in which the city paid almost $11 million to 119 plaintiffs and agreed to reform the department. In 2012, a federal judge ruled that the city had failed to meet the terms of the settlement. While the department avoided a complete federal takeover, an independent "compliance monitor" was appointed by the court to oversee ongoing reforms.
New online journalism project Oakland Police Beat is trying to keep the Department accountable. The website is combing through 23 years' worth of public records related to the OPD and using them to tell the story of the troubled institution. "We wanted to show the culture of the police department and how it got where it is today," says Oakland Police Beat Editor Abraham Hyatt.
Back in 2012, Hyatt teamed up with site's co-founder Susan Mernit, also editor and publisher of the Oakland Local news site, to work on a project about police accountability, securing funding from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. They knew that disciplinary records for the police had been made private through a State Supreme Court ruling. But they could obtain records of settlements made by the city in cases of alleged wrongful death, police brutality, and misconduct. So that's what they went after.
Oakland Police Beat also requested the department's records of decorations awarded to officers.
Hyatt and a small team of reporters and interns spent most of last spring and summer poring over the resulting documents, mostly the old-fashioned way – by reading them. "It's a very human web project," he says. Since the launch of the site on April 1, they've been publishing stories that have come out of that examination.
Since 1990, they found in reviewing the records, the city has paid out $74 million to settle 417 lawsuits in cases of alleged "brutality, misconduct and other civil rights violations," more than almost any other department in the state. They also found a correlation between which officers received department awards and which were involved in shootings and allegations of excessive force:
[T]here is a grim parallel between our findings and what independent commissions created to investigate high-profile scandals at police departments in New York City and Los Angeles, as well as at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, all found: the officers with a history of violent behavior were also the officers that earned some of the most praise and the most awards.
The Oakland Police Beat project, says Hyatt, will be putting up fresh stories that have emerged from this data for the next several weeks. They are also making all the information available to whoever wants to use it, and he hopes that people will be taking advantage of that offer.
The response from within the local community has been mixed. "Proponents [of the police] feel we're being too negative and focusing on the wrong things," says Hyatt. "But we have yet to have someone say, the facts you are building your stories on are wrong."
Before the site launched, Hyatt says, Oakland Police Beat staffers met with the OPD "to let them know what we were doing." Since the launch, there has been nothing but silence from City Hall.
Hyatt says that he thinks other journalists could potentially use Oakland Police Beat as inspiration. "I think that anyone who wants to take an aggressive look at some government agency and look at it from a very high elevation – I definitely think that could be a model."
For now, Hyatt is concentrating on uncovering stories that he thinks have a unique local relevance.
"I don’t think Oakland can just say, we have new people in charge now," says Hyatt. "There needs to be a deeper understanding of how they got there. I think that’s the value of this project."