Citizens across America should be able to trust law enforcement, but a recent USA Today Network investigation called Tarnished Brass has found the opposite, exposing hundreds of officers with troubling records. The investigation discovered that not only is there a system that keeps them safe, but it allows those officers to climb through the ranks and eventually become police chiefs.
Tarnished Brass is an ongoing investigation, and so far includes articles (the first one was published April 24), a searchable database of more than 30,000 officers that have been banned from their profession in at least one state, and thousands of pages of underlying public records. Email blasts are also sent to readers who have an intense interest in policing in America. There is also a video account of one man who became a police chief in Ohio despite having a criminal conviction and a series of serious misconduct investigations.
The idea for the project originated in 2016. Local newsrooms were interested in the topic based on the issues they were seeing in their communities and the difficulty of obtaining information.
“Every USA Today Network newsroom is involved in some way,” John Kelly, director of data journalism, said. “Starting with assisting in the gathering and sharing of records.”
However, it was a core group of about 20 journalists from USA Today and the network’s local newsrooms that requested, obtained and digitized hundreds of thousands of pages of public records from various police departments, sheriffs, prosecutors and state agencies. Kelly said the Network is also partnering with outside media organizations as well.
While Kelly said it’s tricky to say how many records they have acquired so far, he said they had “an accounting of misconduct or alleged misconduct for at least 225,000 distinct incidents involving at least 85,000 police officers digitized.” The Network still has a substantial and unknown amount of records left to digitize.
The project has received mostly a positive response, even from those in law enforcement. Kelly said that the stories are well read, the database is heavily used, and they have received more than 550 tips on police misconduct from readers.
Vice president of investigations Chris Davis added, “How local governments police our communities is and always has been one of the most basic things covered by journalists. That has gotten more and more difficult as secrecy around police misconduct has increased. We see this as a fundamental way for reporters to be able to hold their governments accountable.”
USA Today Network has committed reporting resources to Tarnished Brass through 2019 and the database will continue to be updated.