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A San Diego police officer / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In late February, I found myself fist-pumping, Arsenio-style, when I read this story by two reporters in UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, detailing a secret list of California police officers who’ve been convicted of crimes.

California’s top law enforcement official demanded they give the list back. Instead of surrendering it, they told the public about it.

At that point, I was a journalism fan watching from afar.

But a few weeks later, we got an email out of the blue. And soon after, Jesse Marx, Katy Stegall and I went from being spectators to part of the team.

That team included the Berkeley group, a handful of newspaper groups representing dozens of publications across California, plus Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Together, we wanted to build a comprehensive list of the police officers in California who’d committed crimes.

Reporting the existence of the list was one thing. Digging up the records for each of the hundreds of cases on the list – and actually confirming that the person involved was a member of law enforcement – was another.

I asked Jesse to describe some of what the reporting entailed:

So we began with 53 cases, and compiling the files that we needed — criminal, civil, family records from four courthouses — took several weeks, the attention of at least two full-time staffers and two interns, and hundreds of dollars. And we did it without any guarantee that the cases would reveal any bigger trends, let alone stories worth reporting to the public.

Day by day, I felt like I was at the mercy of clerks. I got to know a couple over the course of the summer and some were nice enough to call me as soon as a file I’d requested from their off-site archives had arrived. Others treated me and my colleagues like pests.

I remember one clerk in particular who suggested that an intern and I were wasting her time and the court’s time by requesting so many files at once. She told us next time to grab the “researcher” ticket at the kiosk rather than the “public” ticket. Members of the public are usually called within an hour, but researchers can sometimes wait around for two to three to four hours. If we pulled the wrong ticket in the future, she said, she’d refuse to serve us.

I kept pulling the public ticket.

Once the files were in our hands, we then set about figuring out what had happened inside the courtroom. The part of the criminal case that the average person can see is shockingly thin. It usually includes the complaint and some basic notes about hearings, maybe a motion or two. Rarely do you find any detailed explanation of the facts and allegations or a list of the witnesses whom the prosecutors and defense attorneys intend to call at trial. Only the audio recordings and court transcripts can provide any insight.

… Current courtroom reporters informed me that if the courthouse itself didn’t keep an audio recording of the hearing I wanted, I was probably out of luck. The record seemed to no longer exist.

There were also weekly editor check-ins, where we did the tedious work of fact-checking, deadline-setting and coordinating the chaotic swirl of our competing schedules. Wildfires engulfed the state, pulling partners in different directions. The leadership and many of the staff members of the UC Berkeley group leading the collaboration abruptly left; the rest of us scrambled to keep the ship on course.

We tinkered with wording. We went back and forth with lawyers about how many layers of confirmation were sufficient before an officer was officially entered into the database. There were more delays. There were last-minute hitches.

In other words, it was a typical investigation.

What’s not typical is for so many newsrooms to come together to produce something of this scale.

You can check out the incredible database and statewide investigation that’s the result of those efforts here.

We’ll be rolling out the results of the effort on our website all week long. Many of the details we uncovered about San Diego officers in particular are devastating, and infuriating. They’re each worth a read.

What VOSD Learned this Week

SDPD’s backlogged rape kits have generated dozens of the DNA profiles that returned matches in the federal DNA database, giving investigators a potential lead. Those results appear to conflict with the department’s longtime contention that testing all rape kits isn’t useful or appropriate.

***

A new law capping rent increases across the state doesn’t kick in until Jan. 1. In the meantime, some tenants across the city say they’re being forced to choose between leaving their homes or swallowing massive rent hikes.

***

Will Huntsberry peeled back the curtain on the San Diego Cooperative School’s messy breakup with its second campus. Now that campus might turn into a pilot school. So, uh, what is that?

***

Election coverage, for better or worse, is happening. This week, we looked into why some major groups have steered clear of the District 1 county supervisor race so far, and explained the one scandalito that has come up in Todd Gloria’s campaign for mayor. (That scandalito, by the way, appears to already be sort of resolved.)

Meanwhile, some drama over voting itself erupted this week as the county weighed how to comply with a new state law allowing same-day voter registration at all polling places. We talked about the ensuing drama on the podcast, and I broke down the web of new state voting laws in the Sacramento Report.

***

Many victims of teacher misconduct say their experiences still haunt them regularly – not just because of the abuse or harassment itself, but because the way their cases were handled complicated the healing process.

What I’m Reading

Line of the Week

“Pockets in a dress are so Zooey Deschanel can always have a crystal nearby. Pockets in a dress are just in case Maggie Gyllenhaal finds a four-leaf clover. Pockets in a dress are for baby girl who is best fwiends with a bee and need one sugared violet for dinner in case she get wost chasing dandelion fuzz. That should be a niche market at best, not a foundational trope of womanhood.” – Lindy West is the only woman brave enough to offer this scorching take.

Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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