ProPublica’s series “The NYPD Files,” which uncovered abuse and impunity inside the New York Police Department, won the Al Nakkula Award for Police Reporting. Co-sponsored by the Denver Press Club and the University of Colorado Boulder's College of Media, Communication and Information, the award honors the late Al Nakkula, a 46-year veteran of the Rocky Mountain News whose tenacity made him a legendary police reporter.
ProPublica’s Eric Umansky, Joaquin Sapien, Topher Sanders, Derek Willis, Moiz Syed, Mollie Simon, Lena Groeger, Joshua Kaplan, Lucas Waldron and Adriana Gallardo contributed to the project.
“ProPublica’s ‘NYPD Files’ blew us away and stood out clearly as our top choice despite an astonishingly excellent series of contenders,” said lead judge Chuck Plunkett, director of CU News Corps, a program for journalism undergraduate and graduate students at the university. “While we discussed the package, we noted that any number of the stories in the 10-part series could have been offered as a standalone entry and easily reached finalist consideration.”
The series’ first story, by Umansky, a deputy managing editor, began on Halloween of 2019, when his wife, Sara Pekow, and daughter were headed home after a night of trick-or-treating and saw an unmarked police car hit a Black teenager who was running with a group. Miraculously unharmed, the teen got away. Police then hauled away a completely different group of Black boys — a 15-year-old, a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old — who were detained for hours before being released without explanation. When Umansky tried to find out whether the Police Department would investigate the cops’ actions, he discovered all the ways the NYPD is shielded from accountability.
For example, the New York Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) logged nearly 3,000 allegations of officers physically abusing civilians in 2018 and was able to substantiate just 73. The most severe punishment, loss of vacation days, was meted out to nine officers.
No details were available on any of these cases because of 50-a, a New York law that barred the public from seeing police discipline records. But that was about to change. Shortly before we published Umansky’s story, New York lawmakers repealed that law. Soon after, Umansky filed a request for the records of every police officer who had had at least one substantiated complaint. He had the data days later. A team of developers — including Willis, Syed and Ken Schwencke, the editor of ProPublica’s news applications team — moved quickly to create an online database that could be searched by readers.
The database, called “The NYPD Files,” made public thousands of police discipline records that New York kept secret for decades. It provided an unprecedented picture of civilians’ complaints of abuse by NYPD officers. According to the records, more than 200 officers still working at the NYPD have had five or more substantiated allegations against them. There are nearly 5,000 allegations of “physical force” and more than 600 of “gun pointed.” Readers can search police complaints and use the information to request details on cases from the CCRB. ProPublica also made the data available for download by anyone.
ProPublica went on to use the disciplinary data published to do more crucial stories. Reporters Sapien and Sanders worked with Willis to identify several high-ranking NYPD commanders who had been promoted again and again despite long records of serious civilian complaints. Umansky and research fellow Simon showed that the NYPD frequently withholds evidence from civilian investigations into police abuse. Groeger, now deputy editor of news apps, engagement reporter Gallardo, Umansky and Simon detailed how NYPD commissioners have used their total authority over discipline to set aside recommendations from the CCRB and even officers’ own guilty pleas. Umansky and visual investigations producer Waldron explored how officers keep killing people in crisis with few consequences. Kaplan and Sapien revealed the even greater lack of accountability that exists for officers working undercover to police the sex trade; they have repeatedly been accused of making false arrests and engaging in sexual misconduct. The consequences fall almost entirely on the city’s people of color, as almost everyone arrested for prostitution or soliciting is nonwhite.
The “NYPD Files” has resulted in significant moves toward change. A federal judge ruled in favor of allowing disclosure of further records, a ruling that was affirmed by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. New York’s City Council proposed sweeping reforms to reshape and increase accountability at the NYPD, including shifting final disciplinary authority away from the commissioner. Another bill in the package would remove NYPD officers as the default responders to emergency calls related to mental health.
Following ProPublica’s investigation of how prostitution is policed in New York City, the Brooklyn district attorney announced he is moving to vacate more than 200 warrants related to prostitution and dismiss the underlying charges. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill repealing an anti-loitering law that had been used to justify prostitution arrests because of the clothes people wore or how they stood on the street, which came to be called the “walking while trans” ban.
Learn more about the Al Nakkula Award here.