Q&A With Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz
Washington Post reporters Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz are two of the writers of "Deadly Force," an examination of shootings by the D.C. police that won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for public service on Monday.
Leen and Horwitz joined us for an hour-long discussion. A transcript follows. Submit questions now about the series and the award.
washingtonpost.com: Congratulations to you, Jeff and Sari, and to the rest of the team that worked on this series. To get this discussion started, could you give our readers some brief background on how "Deadly Force" came about?
Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz: The project began with a hunch by a Washington Post researcher named Jo Craven. Jo is a specialist in handling computer databases. While she was working at the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting in Columbia, Mo., she looked at an FBI Uniform Crime Reports database. She noticed one category of data missing: justifiable homicides. She became interested in what this data showed. When Jo left NICAR and joined the Washington Post in October 1997, she brought her interest in the data with her. She requested the missing information from the FBI through a Freedom of Information request. After three months, she received the data and it showed that D.C. police appeared to be shooting and killing people at a much higher rate than any other big-city police force in America.
Washington, D.C.: Congratulations. How does it feel to win a Pulitzer? When you were in the thick of working on the stories, did you even dare to think they would have a shot at the Big Prize?
Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz: We are thrilled and honored, and a bit humbled. Winning a Pulitzer Prize is such a longshot that few journalists seriously think they have a chance while they are in the middle of a big project. You are too busy trying to finish your work and dealing with the daily challenges.
Washington D.C.: How do you think our problems here compare with the problems with New York cops?
Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz: All crime is local. We found that police in D.C. had a much higher rate of shootings than police in New York. NYPD, in fact, had one of the lowest rates of any city police force we looked at. The current problems in New York show that one bad, controversial shooting can stain an entire department. The other issue raised in New York is race. In New York, four white officers shot a black man. Race was not a factor in D.C., where none of the people shot and killed by police between mid-1993 and mid-1997 were Caucasian.
St. Joseph, Mo.:
Congratulations to my favorite newspaper! Great job on the stories. A few questions from a fellow reporter: How long did it take to write it? How much research help did you have outside of your own reporting efforts?
Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz: The series took eight months to report and research. The writing took 2 1/2 months. Three reporters, Jeff Leen, Sari Horwitz and David Jackson, did the writing and reporting. Two researchers, Alice Crites and Margot Williams, checked clips, pulled files and compiled databases. Two computer specialists, Jo Craven and Ira Chinoy, the Post's Director of Computer-Assisted Reporting, analyzed the data on shootings.
Fairfax, Va.: Is it your sense that D.C. is plagued with more or less violent crime than other big cities? Does it have more poverty than other big cities?
Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz: Our reporting found that D.C. is one of the most violent cities in America. But it wasn't the most violent. It also was one of the top cities in the country in terms of homicide. But our research found that those two factors alone did not explain the high rate of shootings when compared with other cities. D.C. also has one of the highest rates of poverty in the country, the highest infant mortality rate and one of the greatest disparities between rich and poor.
Arlington, Va. : From what I've read, computers played an important role in the reporting of this story. What role do you see computers playing in journalism? How can they help reporting, and how can they hinder it?
Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz: Computers can be very helpful, as long as reporters know how to use them. Computer databases can give you a lead on a story or a pattern to investigative, but they CANNOT give you the story or substitute for old-fashioned reporting. If they could, we would not have had to spend eight months on the story after the database pattern became known.
Ellicot City, Md.: Throughout the series you had D.C. police officials essentially agreeing with your conclusions. Were they aware they had a problem, even anecdotally, before your reporting? And how did you go about convincing them of you findings?
Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz: D.C. police officials have long known they had a problem with firearms training. But they did not know the extent of the problem they had with questionable police shootings. We took our findings to the new police chief and his top deputy, who looked carefully at what we found and very quickly began making far-reaching changes.
Washington, D.C.: Congratulations on your prize. One thing I thought was striking was the map, which showed that basically all the shootings were in the "black" parts of town. You didn't really go into that in your stories, though. Why not?
Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz: The story did not emphasize the racial aspects of the shootings, because we determined that the shootings were not motivated by race. We found that the shootings occurred in the poorer parts of town. We mentioned that none of the fatal shootings occurred in the more affluent areas west of Rock Creek Park. In the shootings, most of the officers were black, as were the persons shot. In the end, we determined that race was not the point of the series. The series was about the factors that lead to bad shootings: poor training, supervision and investigation.
Falls Church, Va.: Did you experience a progression of responses from the D.C. police department? For example, were you initially met with hostility that turned to resignation once it was clear you had the paper's backing to go forward with the stories?
Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz: We did indeed meet a progression of responses. Police were initially not extremely helpful, but they were helpful and cooperative as we neared the end.
Arlington, Va.: Today's Post story mentioned that Don Graham had been a police officer. While the story stressed that he didn't oppose the story, what sorts of feedback did he give you?
Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz: He was very interested in the story from the beginning. He was supportive or our reporting efforts. He stressed that it was important to be fair and nuanced in our depiction of events.
Washington, D.C.: I enjoyed your series immensely -- it was both informative and chilling. Is the police department looking into any alternatives to firepower in dealing with suspects? Technology is changing all the time, so it seems like there must be some other options out there.
Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz: The department is giving its officers more training in alternatives to deadly force and is distributing a new expandable baton and more effective pepper spray.
Arlington, Va.: After your series ran, the District police department bolstered firearms training for the force. What was the department's behind-the-scenes reaction to the series? What impact, if any, has your reporting had on The Post's relationship with the police department?
Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz: Many officers were upset, but some were supportive. Immediately after the series, there certainly was tension between some officers and some reporters. But the top command of the department has made it clear that it wants to cooperate with the Post in the future.
Arlington, Va. :
Jeff & Sari, congratulations! I was wondering to what degree using computers and databases played a part in your ability to sort through all the data you had on the police dept.?
Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz: Computer databases helped us with our reporting, but they were one of the tools we used to organize and sort through the data. Much of that work was done the old-fashioned way, by hand.
Arlington, Va.: The D.C. police department has been struggling with a variety of problems for years. When you were working on this story, was there any revelation that you found particularly surprising?
Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz: With all the reports and studies of the department, it was surprising that nobody had focused on the high rate of police shootings in the 1990s.
Springfield, Va. : What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in reporting this series? Were there any major turning points -- i.e., breakthroughs in obtaining information -- that really helped shape the stories?
Jeff Leen and Sari Horwitz: The biggest challenge in the beginning was simply getting the basic information about the number of fatal police shooting in the District. One police officer said such statistics were unavailable. A major turning point was getting an internal police report on shooting incidents. Another was getting a list of lawsuits against the police in shooting and excessive force incidents. A third was studying five years of press releases on police shootings. We compiled all this data and found patterns and shootings that were missed in the department's own records.
That's all the time we have. Thanks for all of your questions. And thank you for joining us today, Jeff and Sari. Good luck on your next projects.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company