Kestin came up with the idea of using “SunPass” toll-booth records, getting raw material in readings from 3,915 police-car transponders—which officials initially refused to produce, arguing they weren’t public. Those records helped document the high frequency of high-speed driving by police officers done off-duty, or in non-emergency cases. The problem, then, was to prove how fast they actually drove.
“Even once we got the data - more than a million records - the technical challenges were daunting because the raw information does not allow speed calculations,” according to database specialist John Maines, quoted in the Sun Sentinel’s Monday account of its Pulitzer. The answer: Reporters measured the distance between toll plazas, using Garmin GPS devices, for the most part, and allowing the journalists to calculate the police-car speeds themselves. Over three months they traced nearly 800 instances of police from various agencies driving at between 90 and 130 mph.
After the first story, “For cops, no limit,” with a joint Kestin-Maines byline, a second article explored horrifying cases of civilians and police alike being killed or injured in cop-speeding accidents—320 crashes and 19 deaths since 2004—and noted that only one officer went to jail as a result, serving 60 days. A third installment looked at the culture of police-officer speeding, and how it could be changed.
The Pulitzers called special attention to the remarkably clear impact of the series. Especially in public service, the Pulitzers look for what a news organization accomplished with its work, and the Pulitzer citation said this story led “to disciplinary action and other steps to curtail a deadly hazard.”
In fact, five follow-up stories documented the punishment handed out to officers, including the firing of the one whose case sparked the investigation. Police authorities lauded the Sun Sentinel’s work. And the Sun Sentinel’s own speed-measuring procedure showed “an 84 percent drop in high-speed incidents over the same period last year.”
While it isn’t known for sure how strongly that factor influenced the Pulitzer board, Bhatia says jurors weighed it heavily in putting the Sun Sentinel among the three finalist nominations. The others: a project by the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch, exposing how a state-run police force failed to protect horribly abused developmentally disabled patients, and a Washington Post examination of flawed evidence being used in criminal cases the Justice Department prosecuted.
Not everyone in the Sun Sentinel newsroom was totally shocked by the announcement.
Editor Saltz says that on Saturday he’d been called by a source saying “we would probably have cause to celebrate.” Two other tips came in to other staffers. But nobody “said exactly what we had won, or even that they were 100 percent certain.” Still, Saltz quietly secured some champagne.
“There was no downside,” he explains. “Had we not won we could have drowned our sorrows. “
For Kestin’s part the afternoon was a joyous blur. She didn’t even become aware until two hours later that bombs had exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line - news that broke at almost the same time Sig Gissler’s Pulitzer announcement was being broadcast to newsrooms around the country, including the Sun Sentinel’s. Gissler had noted the developing reports from Boston as he spoke. But Kestin missed it. Since “our category was the first announced, Sig got ‘Sun Sent’ out before the newsroom erupted in screams,” Kestin says. “I didn’t hear anything else after that.”
In terms of the Pulitzer awards, there was an even bigger surprise in his announcement, Gissler notes: the selection of three reporters from startup nonprofit website InsideClimate, who won for national reporting, for work disclosing flawed regulation of oil pipelines. That beat out finalists at the Boston Globe and Washington Post, in a case, Gissler says, of the Pulitzer Board suggesting “the way the ethos of journalism is being reconfigured.” (Last year’s national reporting Pulitzer had gone to a Huffington Post reporter.)
Perhaps by widening the Pulitzer radar screen to include the Sun Sentinel’s less-well-known public service, something else was being said about the ethos: that severe staff retrenchments needn’t get in the way of solid watchdog reporting.