A secret list of unreliable cops. A troubling suicide at juvenile hall. Rich residents who let their water use run wild. Local and regional media outlets produced remarkable work in 2014 that exposed trouble in paradise, particularly in terms of crime and injustice.
Here’s a look back at some of the year’s most memorable news stories from other media outlets.
High Cost of Lives Lost to Life Support
The stories: “An Impossible Choice,” by Joanne Faryon and Brad Racino, September 2014, Inewsource
What they’re about: An estimated 4,000 Californians are in vegetative states and live on life support in nursing homes. The stories examine the experiences of patients, their families and caretakers.
Excerpt: “It was the fifth time Rafaela’s feeding tube clogged, on the fifth consecutive Friday, that drove Steve Simmons to threaten to bring a shotgun into the nursing home.”
Why the stories are exceptional: After gaining the trust of medical officials and families, Inewsource reporters brought readers, listeners and viewers into the rooms of people whose shriveled lives continue at great emotional and financial cost. While there’s room to debate whether the series violated the privacy of patients, there’s no doubting the power of this journalism.
In Juvenile Hall, Suicide and Scandal
The story: “Suicide attempts soar at San Diego County juvenile hall,” by Kelly Davis and Dave Maass, Nov. 26, 2014, CityBeat
What it’s about: The county’s troubled juvenile justice system is facing accusations that it negligently allowed a 16-year-old girl to kill herself in 2013.
Excerpt: “To accept the official version of events, you must believe that Rosemary orchestrated and executed a complex suicide plan, timed perfectly between 15-minute safety checks. To exculpate county staff, you must also believe they had no reason to place Rosemary on suicide watch, requiring even more frequent checks and the removal from her cell of anything she might use to harm herself.”
Why the story is exceptional: CityBeat, a weekly newspaper with a tiny staff, has doggedly tracked misconduct in the local juvenile justice system, and its coverage has spawned calls for reform of “inhumane and abusive” practices. This story is difficult to read but crucial to understand the issues facing the troubled system.
City Goes Rogue in ‘Panty’ Claim
The story: “City accuses victim of panty bribery,” by Greg Moran, Jan. 14, 2014, U-T San Diego
What it’s about: In court papers, the city of San Diego tried to defend a disgraced cop by saying an accuser — a woman previously described as “very courageous” by a city police chief — had credibility problems because she’d allegedly tried to bribe the cop when she gave him her panties at his request.
Excerpt: “‘Plaintiff bribed Officer Arevalos with her panties to get out of the DUI,’ the filing says. ‘Both plaintiff and Arevalos agreed to consummate the bribe in a nearby 7-Eleven in the Gaslamp.’”
Why the story is exceptional: Sharp-eyed reporting exposed the city’s insulting legal strategy and forced a retraction of the victim-blaming legal claim.
Power, Influence and Injustice
The stories: “The Favor” — “Knives, a death, a famous name” and “On the eve of a murder trial, a deal is struck. But will it stick?” by Christopher Goffard, December 2014, Los Angeles Times
What they’re about: A young man is stabbed to death at San Diego State, another young man stands accused. But he has powerful connections, including a father once known as the state’s most powerful legislator, and they’ll make all the difference.
Excerpt: “The son will emerge from a side door in his prison scrubs and leather boots, at 25 already taller and broader than his father. Always, they greet with an embrace. They will play intense games of Scrabble, and discuss the family and the latest tech gadgets waiting in the world outside. In a year and a half, the father will bring his son home.”
Why the stories are exceptional: These are stories full of vivid storytelling and provoke big questions about justice and political influence.
Accused Teachers Get Costly Exits
The story: “Teacher firings take time, money,” by Ashly McGlone, Dec. 13, 2014, U-T San Diego
What it’s about: Everyone knows — or thinks they know — that it’s extremely difficult and expensive to fire bad teachers. The U-T investigated 12 local cases from 2013 and 2014 and found that school districts often had to spend thousands to buy off teachers accused of misconduct to get them to quit their jobs. Some spent years on paid leave.
Excerpt: “One teacher offered a minor $300 to have sex, and another brought a loaded gun to school, their employers said. A third was accused of standing by as a student was assaulted during class, laughing and calling the assailant ‘sweetie.’”
Why the story is exceptional: It provides actual data for the ongoing debate over teacher tenure and includes an eye-popping fact: School districts often weren’t allowed to tell potential future employers about the accusations, meaning that bad teachers may go on to be bad elsewhere.
Good Cop, Bad List: The DA’s Secret File
The story: “DA keeps secret list of bad cops,” by Jeff McDonald, July 26, 2014, U-T San Diego
What it’s about: The U-T discovered that the office of District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has a list of untrustworthy cops. It “includes officers and deputies with a track record of lying or other misconduct that could undermine credibility on the witness stand.”
Excerpt: “A committee of senior prosecutors meets regularly to consider whether officers should be added to or removed from the index. Officers are invited to submit their own evidence to the committee … The panel keeps extensive files on officers — some totaling hundreds of pages — whether they land on the list or not.”
Why the story is exceptional: It may be routine for some prosecutors to keep a so-called Brady Index, but it’s still shocking that we’d have one here and that these cops — if truly bad witnesses — would still be on the job. The DA’s office refuses to say who’s on the list and issued a bizarre excuse by “saying the public interest in effective law enforcement outweighs any benefit to disclosing names on the index or even which agencies employ them.”
In Rancho Santa Fe: What Drought?
The story: “Where Grass Is Greener, a Push to Share Drought’s Burden,” by Ian Lovett, Nov. 29, 2014, New York Times
What it’s about: There’s a drought, but the wealthy folks in the San Diego-area town of Rancho Santa Fe aren’t paying much attention: They used more water per person than anyone else in the state in September, an average of 584 gallons a day.
Excerpt: “It’s an affluent community,” said Ms. [Laura] de Seroux, who is 62. “People have gardeners, and they just don’t pay attention. They don’t clean their own houses. That’s the way it is here.”
Why the story is exceptional: We all know that the hassles of saving water aren’t being spread equally, but this story brings the disparities into tight focus close to home.
More 2014 Stories to Remember
• They voted, but there was a hitch: They were dead. In July, the U-T discovered several cases in which dead people cast ballots. Despite indication of possible misconduct by living people, no one’s been prosecuted.
• In September, the U-T found that more than 500 teachers countywide made more than $100,000 in salaries in 2013 “by taking on extra assignments, gaining education, coaching teams and building up years of tenure.”
• In a Slate essay from November, retired fisherman John La Grange of Solana Beach ponders assisted suicide and wrenchingly recalls his wife’s death by inches from cancer: “I would give anything to not have experienced the last week of my wife’s life.”
Bonus: Alert Reporter Roundup
• NBC 7 thought there was something mighty suspicious about City Council members holding a bunch of private meetings to figure out whom to appoint as council president. The station raised the alarm about a possible violation of open-government laws, and the Council had to redo its vote.
• Also in December, KPBS reporter Tarryn Mento overheard a City Council staffer make inappropriate and obscene remarks about Ferguson protesters. The staffer, for Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, was suspended and had to apologize.