They weren’t the first to probe police shootings. But Tampa Bay Times wanted to ‘do it better.’

BEN MONTGOMERY SPENT MORE THAN two years gathering use-of-force reports from Florida’s nearly 400 law enforcement agencies. He wrote personal checks to cover the costs of record requests, and amassed a six-foot stack of documents that detailed six years of police shootings throughout the state, more than half of them fatal. “Nobody tracks these,” Montgomery told a Radiolab producer who visited him at the Tampa Bay Times. “The FBI doesn’t. State agencies don’t, for the most part.”

Now, the Tampa Bay Times does. “Why Cops Shoot” debuted online Tuesday with a stark, abstract portrait of the racial disparities turned up by Montgomery and his colleagues. A page on the Times’ website presents readers with a small grey circle and a bit of text: “Alens Charles, asleep in his car.” A second circle appears: “Rodney Mitchell, driving home.” And a third: “Dontrell Stephens, riding his bike.” Those circles join a constellation of other shootings—827 in all—which then gives way to a series of data visualizations and the Times’ blunt conclusion: “Police are more likely to shoot if you’re black.”

The Times’ graphic argument leads readers to back a custom database of the 827 police shootings that took place in the state between 2009 and 2014. Each shooting is summarized, mapped, and linked to shootings with which it shares characteristics—whether a victim was armed, or complied with officers, or fled.

It also leads to an 8,000-word narrative report from Montgomery, an enterprise reporter at the Times, framed by the shooting of 23-year-old Rodney Mitchell and his mother’s struggle to find something like justice.

“For the past three years, shootings of unarmed black men caught on video have sparked outrage,” Montgomery writes. “But they are anecdotes. Without data, there’s no scope.” And without anecdotes, data just floats, untethered from the lives they represent.

Yesterday, Montgomery spoke with CJR about his reporting, the Times’ stirring data presentation, and the power of pairing data and narrative. His remarks have been edited for clarity.

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

 

On the origins of the project

In the weeks after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, I became aware of the fact that nobody keeps track of police shootings. I was outraged that there was no central repository for this kind of record keeping—something that seems so important and drives public discourse and sends people into the streets carrying signs. I certainly wasn’t alone in that; it launched The Washington Post and The Guardian US and a bunch of smaller papers around the country on similar efforts to try and keep stock.

I was ranting about this during a staff meeting, and someone said, “Why don’t we count?” It was simple as that. At that point, I had no idea how many police stations there were in Florida, or how long this would take.

Once the first handful of agencies responded and I was getting full and detailed reports and getting familiar with them, I thought, “If we can do this for everybody, if everybody responds, this could be something that is super useful.” [The project] morphed from taking count to, “What can we learn about these things? What are ways that we can identify trends? How can we categorize some of these shootings to use the numbers in productive ways?”

We had a guy who had built the entry side of a database for a previous piece on Florida’s stand-your-ground law. We morphed that to make it more useful for what we were doing.

From my perspective, managing that data input, making sure it was accurate for dozens of fields of entry—it was a beast. I still have anxiety we might’ve missed something, that there might be a name misspelled among 827 shootings involving more than 1,000 cops.

 

On getting records in Florida—and paying for them

In Florida, every project I start, I work under the idea that every document created by government employees in the conduct of government business should be available for public inspections. There are exceptions—juvenile criminals, minors in state custody—but by and large, every document should be available for public release.

There were plenty of agencies that got a request, very quickly identified the digital copies, and sent them almost immediately. Others weren’t digitized, and [agencies] had to assign personnel to find these “use of force” reports. Those agencies charged us for processing those records.

We’d get a response from an agency saying, “We expect the expense for your request is $47.” So I’d write a check and mail it off, or my editor Bill Duryea [who become Politico’s enterprise editor in 2014] would send it off. We didn’t do a good job keeping track, so $4,000 is a super-conservative estimate.

The large agencies—Miami, Jacksonville, Pensacola, St. Petersburg—were very quick to respond and get us documents. They tended to be good about record keeping, and they know that those “use of force” reports are going to be public records.

When you got down to the smaller agencies, especially those without digital access to records, it took a while. Right up to the end. I was calling Homestead as recently as last week and dealing with the county clerk’s office. “Where are your shooting reports? Why don’t we have them?”

 

On critical responses from government agencies and readers

I can count on one hand the number of conversations I had that were contentious.

On the Times’ Facebook page, there may be a tendency towards knee-jerk reactions, like “How dare you do this to police again?” But those people haven’t read the story. We actually spent a lot of time talking to the police. This included regular, direct consultation with people in the police ranks—people who have been my sources for years and years, looking over my shoulder. “Are we looking at right trends in this data? Is this fair line to pursue?” Once people have a chance to get into the story and realize it isn’t police bashing— this is a thoughtful, complicated, 8,000-word story—the knee-jerk criticism dissipates.

 

On the scope of the data

Once we learned the potential for this project, it became a little daunting. Like, “We are doing a lot here.” The level of detail we were going for, I haven’t seen anywhere. Getting just the data in was hours and hours of work by many people. At times, it seemed like it was cost-prohibitive, like we couldn’t hire enough people to get this in. We farmed a lot out to senior reporting students at the University of South Florida and the University of Tampa. I had eight interns, here for their summer internship with the Times, all to myself to focus on data entry.

From my perspective, managing that data input, making sure it was accurate for dozens of fields of entry—it was a beast. I still have anxiety we might’ve missed something, that there might be a name misspelled among 827 shootings involving more than 1,000 cops.

 

On choosing the narrative to carry the story

We started talking about the words part of it way early, when I started to sink into the cases I found most interesting. We had a conversation, or a series, that were like, “We could do eight different stories, each focused on its own topic. We could do a story about mentally ill people shot by police, and how police deal with the mentally ill. We could do one story on race, one story on police training.”

It was my argument early on to do one comprehensive, scene-driven, character-driven story. My preference as a reader is to read that, rather than a bunch of different stories.

I’d never heard of the shooting of Rodney Mitchell before I started working on this, though it’d happened years before. He fit the demographic we all had a hunch about, but the numbers confirmed: a young black man, unarmed, often in a traffic stop, gets shot by the police in a way that’s not racially consistent with the demographics of the state.

Another thing is how his case was playing out. Even if the circumstances of his shooting were questionable, I knew early on that this was going to be a case where the courts rule in favor of the officers. I thought that would serve as a useful example of what happens in these cases, and the way that prevents people close to Rodney from finding relief.

 

On the Times’ stark, devastating data visualization

I didn’t work on the data visualization at all. I saw it kind of coming together a couple of months ago. I know the thinking was Connie [Humburg, the Times’ computer-assisted reporting specialist] and Neil [Bedi, a reporter and developer at the paper] wanted something that complemented the story but didn’t try to tell the story in all. Their mission was to get people into the project, and isolate some important findings without necessarily relying on anecdotes.

The trends that Connie and Neil isolated were theirs. It’s taking these big complicated cases and boiling them down into a sentence or two. That’s a difficult thing. That’s why I like this story. These are big, hairy complicated things. They require space and explanation.

Since we’ve been doing this, we’ve been beaten by everybody. Glen Smith at The Post and Courier in South Carolina did a whole massive amazing thing. The Washington Post has done a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on shootings. The Guardian US has done a big database on this. A couple of papers in Florida did the same thing.

On the future of the shootings database

I don’t think the database is something the Times can afford to sustain forever. We talked about seeing if something like a Kickstarter would have success. Is that something people would pay for? The maintenance and upkeep of a database like that? Those things have yet to be determined. For now, it is what it is. If someone’s interested in paying someone to keep it current, then we might explore that.

This is a big old ambitious project. We haven’t seen the analytics yet. I don’t know whether our print subscribers will appreciate this. I don’t know how long this lasts, this kind of deeply involved project. I don’t know how long you can do this.

 

On collaborating with Radiolab for its two-part “Shots Fired” episode

I did a thing with Radiolab a few years ago that was a really fun, but less serious story. Since then, I get the calls for pitches from Radiolab on a regular basis. I saw one, and it asked something like, “Are you a reporter working on a white whale of a project?” I had already started working on this story, and we’d started building the database, and so I pitched this to Radiolab as a chance to piggyback a bit on the reporting we were doing. The more filled-in the database became, and the more clear the trend lines became, Radiolab decided to send a producer down here a couple times to do some reporting with me.

We were thinking we’d be done with this early last year. But the closer we got to thinking we were almost done, the more elusive the ending was. So, Radiolab had sort of recorded everything and put their shows together. And they were just kinda waiting.

We had an agreement up front that they wouldn’t publish until we publish. And we kept delaying and delaying for fact checking, bringing the interactive web component online, working out the kinks. But eventually we were close enough that we said, “You all go ahead.” They were different enough; they touched on big numbers, but didn’t go where we went. You’d still want to read our reportage and look at our database.

 

On publishing better, not faster

Since we’ve been doing this, we’ve been beaten by everybody. Glen Smith at The Post and Courier in South Carolina did a whole massive amazing thing. The Washington Post has done a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on shootings. The Guardian US has done a big database on this. A couple of papers in Florida did the same thing.

Our thing was, “We’re going to do it better. We’re going to take the time. And it’s going to be like something you’ve never seen before. Let’s not just point out the problem; let’s talk with people who have ideas about ways to fix this. Then we’ll do what the Tampa Bay Times does best, which is, we’re going to tell a story.”

 

On the response so far

Since we’ve been talking, my modest Twitter notification thing has clicked up to 77, which suggests that quite a few people are sharing it and talking about it. It’s only been up since early this morning, so we’re not even 12 hours in. Is that right? Yeah.

I got a note from Natasha Clemons [Rodney Mitchell’s mother], a text this morning, saying, simply, “Thank you. It feels great to have a voice.” That’s super rewarding to me. So, whatever else happens, happens.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Brendan Fitzgerald is an associate editor at CJR.