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Washington Post honored for deep dive into fatal police shootings

April 19, 2016 at 6:15 PM EDT
The Washington Post picked up two Pulitzer Prizes on Monday, including one for national reporting on police shootings of civilians. According to an innovative new database compiled by the Post, 990 civilians were fatally shot by police last year. For more on the groundbreaking report, Judy Woodruff talks to Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post.

Editor’s Note: In addition to the Washington Post’s Pulitzer-prize winning reporting on police shooting, the Guardian newspaper has also been conducting its own, separate investigation into police misconduct that you can read HERE and HERE. While only the Post won the Pulitzer, both organizations were honored with the distinguished journalism award for public service for their respective investigations from the Society of Professional Journalists.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And speaking of awards, let’s look at some investigative reporting honored by this year’s Pulitzer Prizes.

The Washington Post won two Pulitzers yesterday, including one for national reporting for a series on police shootings of civilians. There had been little national data about those kind of shootings.

The Post created its own database that included these findings: 990 people were fatally shot by police last year. One in six officers had been involved in a prior shooting. In three-quarters of the cases, police were under attack or defending someone who was.

Wesley Lowery was one of The Washington Post’s lead reporters on this. He’s part of a team of more than 60. And he joins me now.

Congratulations, Wesley Lowery.

WESLEY LOWERY, The Washington Post: Thank you so much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s see. How many years have you been reporting?

WESLEY LOWERY: A few, but — a few, a handful. So, I’m 25. I have been at The Post for two years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what was your reaction?

WESLEY LOWERY: I was really excited.

This was a project that really was a newsroom-wide effort that involved a lot of different staffs, our investigative staff, our national desk, which I work for, our graphics and data development staffs as well. It was just a really great team win.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How did the idea for this come about?

WESLEY LOWERY: So, this idea, this project was born in a lot of ways out of Ferguson, Missouri.

And I was one of our lead reporters on the ground in Missouri, as well as then in Baltimore, when there was unrest there. And in Ferguson, they were having this conversation where you had the police unions and the police chiefs saying at the time, this is a one-off anecdote. We almost never shoot anybody. Most officers never fire their guns.

And you had the civil rights groups and many of the activists and protesters saying, young black men are being executed in the streets every day. This is an outrage. We’re being killed.

And so smart editors asked an obvious question, which is true. We should know, right? We should be able to provide some clarity to this debate. And it turned out that we couldn’t because no one was keeping track at the national level and also even at state levels. No one knew exactly how many people were being killed by the police.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what did The Post do? As you said, 60 or 70 people involved. What had to be done?

WESLEY LOWERY: And so what we ended up doing — and this part of this effort was led by Julie Tate and Jen Jenkins, two of my close colleagues, two of our researchers.

And, systematically, day by day, we would search for local news reporting of police shootings, right, because that’s the place where you are most consistently seeing some type of public acknowledgment of a police shooting, a local television station, a local newspaper.

Then what we would do is, we would build the database out. For every shooting we found, that was one line, one name. And then we would go in and we report out 20 or 30 different, you know, pieces of data points about it, race, age, gender, mental illness, for example.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Whether they were armed or not.

WESLEY LOWERY: Whether they were armed or not, and what they were armed with. Was there a toy weapon? Was it a knife? Was it a sledgehammer? That kind of stuff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But this is — this took how long to do?

WESLEY LOWERY: So, a full year. So, we launched in January, and we’re still — to date still working.

But this was a year’s worth of reporting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It really made a huge splash when this story came out. It continues to be looked at, Wesley Lowery.

What struck you as most — what surprised you most? I know we said that three-quarters of those who were killed by police were armed or were attacking officers.

WESLEY LOWERY: In some way attacking the officer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Did that surprise you?

WESLEY LOWERY: No, that wasn’t completely surprising to me.

Now, granted, a lot of the conversation we have is about those cases where perhaps that isn’t what happened or where there is some type of question. But, in some ways, we expect that. We hope and we know that most of our police officers out there are not being placed in some of these situations, and also that in many of the cases, when someone is shot and killed, that there is either some type of legal justification or some type of extenuating circumstance.

But the sheer number did surprise us, right, the fact that it was almost 1,000 over the course of the year, and that very many of them, even in cases where people were armed or unarmed, you had issues of mental illness. You had people who had knives, instead of guns perhaps, cases that seemed that perhaps there was something that could have been done to prevent this person from being killed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, I was struck that, what is it, a quarter of the cases, the individual was having a mental episode or they were mentally ill.

WESLEY LOWERY: Yes, so, one out of every four shootings, that person is either explicitly suicidal or in the midst of some type of mental crisis. Right.

Sometimes, that’s compounded by drugs or alcohol. But very often, you are seeing people with depression, people who are manic depressive, people who are bipolar, and who are suffering from some type of ailment, some physical, mental ailment. And that’s leading them into these confrontations with police officers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you believe this has had an impact, this reporting?


And one of the most obvious way is that we embarrassed the federal government into announcing that they’re going to try to keep some of this data. Previously, again, there was — this wasn’t out there. We had to count them case by case.

And I think, as we wrote these stories, people got a little outraged by that, and they said, that’s ridiculous. We should know. In a country where we count everything, barrels of corn and number of shark attacks, and we know the statistics from the movie that premiered last night, we know exactly how many people saw it and how much popcorn they ate, but we didn’t know how many people were being killed by police.

Now, like I said, the FBI has announced they are going to start doing a project similar to ours that should launch next year to track these, so that we can keep having this conversation. We can have this conversation with information and data and facts, instead of us sort of having a conversation with emotion and anecdotes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last question.

In a time when we seem to be seeing so much focus on social media, which is how people communicate, less resources put into raw reporting, what do you think a project like this says?

WESLEY LOWERY: This speaks to the power that we still have as journalists and that newsrooms still have, when we decide to pivot on an issue and focus our resources into it.

As a political reporter previously, but then also a lot of breaking news, I was someone who did a lot of real-time social media reporting, doing things, you know, as they break. And this was, you know, for me, a great experience getting to work on many longer-term kind of enterprise pieces.

But it speaks to — it’s very inspiring to work at a place like The Post that can devote this type of man and woman power to this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we want to extend congratulations to you, to your entire team at The Washington Post.

Wesley Lowery, thank you very much.

WESLEY LOWERY: Thank you for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we have more coverage of the Pulitzer winners online, including our owns interviews with Lin-Manuel Miranda, winner in drama for his Broadway musical “Hamilton,” and author Joby Warrick, who explored the rise of the Islamic State. Plus, see our special series from Jack Ohman, who won for his editorial cartoons.