Sara Ganim: It’s the summer of 2020.
Archival: Dozens of American cities up in flames. The National Guard is moving into Chicago.
You can see police here are now firing tear gas into the crowd. They are trying to push these folks back.
Sara Ganim: 46-year-old George Floyd has been killed by a police officer in Minneapolis during an arrest over a fake $20 bill.
Archival: We don’t need any cops.
No more, no more.
No, check his pulse.
Sara Ganim: What follows are the largest demonstrations in decades.
Eight o’clock, curfew’s in effect. We’re going to stay and see how it’s going to be enforced.
Black Lives Matter.
Sara Ganim: People in towns, small and large.
Archival: Protest for George Floyd is scheduled to take place in the Montana Capitol on Sunday.
Sara Ganim: All across the country.
Archival: Here in Hawaii, dozens of people took part in a peaceful protest.
Sara Ganim: Show up.
Archival: The National Guard is being deployed to the twin cities.
Sara Ganim: And so do police.
Archival: The march through downtown Denver turns violent.
There have been 88 protest related arrests.
Police in Buffalo defending a use of force.
Sara Ganim: With a heavy response.
Archival: Hundreds of protestors found themselves trapped by police.
They’re shooting pepper balls at us. They’ve thrown out tear gas. Two officers were caught pushing 75 year old Martin Gugino to the ground so hard he laid bleeding.
Sara Ganim: What follows are nation-wide calls for police reform in numbers we have never seen before, but two years later, meaningful change feels rather far away. Polarizing incidents continued to ignite headlines and any productive conversations are stymied by politics and red tape.
Even before George Floyd’s death, our team at Why Don’t We Know? knew that our second season would focus on the criminal justice system. There’s just so much we don’t know in a system that is often touted for being so open and accessible. The reality is that records are often difficult to get, either because the systems that house them are old and outdated, or because they sit behind cost-prohibitive paywalls, or because loopholes and laws allow the substance of them to be mostly redacted. All of this hinders progress.
This season is meant to shed light on some of the reasons the criminal justice system does not always serve justice and how when it does, the justice is not evenly distributed. It’s meant to look at broken systems and why they haven’t been or cannot seem to be fixed. Who is benefiting from those flaws, and who is most hurt by them?
So when we started season two reporting, I expected that a lot of our public records requests, the bedrock of our reporting, would come back with gaping holes. To me, those holes are the stories. Those are the things we don’t know. This is, Why Don’t We Know?
I started my journalism career as a police and courts reporter in a small rural place called Centre County, Pennsylvania. I was actually only 17 years old when I was first sent by my college newspaper to cover what they called the Daily Cops Briefing.
Every day at 2:00 p.m. the State College Police opened up a small conference room for all of the local press, which in this town typically meant one or two television reporters, one or two newspaper reporters, and occasionally someone from the local radio station.
We’d all shuffle in, take seats at a small round table, and together we’d share this printout of all of the incidents that were recorded by police in the prior 24 hours. The detective in charge of these briefings was exactly what you might picture of a small town officer. Military haircut, stocky build. He had spent decades on the force and liked to project a tough demeanor, sometimes grumbling about having to do these briefings, but really he understood their importance.
He’d usually come in cracking a joke about something that one of us had written recently, and then he’d sit there and entertain our questions about what was on the police log. We could ask him anything we wanted to ask, and we did. Looking back, some of those questions were rather naive, but he would always answer them kindly. It was an hour of undivided attention, every single day. It was ultimate transparency.
For many years, that’s how I started my day. I worked the night shift, and so after visiting the police station, I’d make my way to the courthouse where the doors were just as open. I’d go into the clerk’s office and sit there looking at a list of every single case that was coming before the courts that week, sifting through each file, reading the narratives, and often reporting on those stories.
If for some reason I didn’t make it to the courthouse by 5:00 p.m. well then I could go online and do the exact same research sifting through electronic images of those files after hours.
And remember, this was 2005. The internet was nothing like it is today. We were barely out of the age of dial-up. You still needed a university email address to sign up for Facebook back then, and an invitation in order to use Gmail. That kind of public access to documents was rare.
Even though this was my first real journalism job, I recognized and really appreciated that it didn’t matter if I wrote a story that a judge or a prosecutor didn’t like, which trust me, I did. They couldn’t take away my access. They couldn’t close the door to the courthouse on me. All of that really spoiled me.
Years later when I moved on to cover news nationally, I began seeing different jurisdictions around the country and I realized this was not the norm. Across the country, access to police and courts varies greatly and so does attitude about what the public should get and how quickly they should get it.
It was often the case that it took weeks or even months for me to get court transcripts, criminal complaints, and basic information about police activity or public safety.
Season one of this podcast focused on why we don’t know critical information that can help keep kids safe in schools. We always knew that season two would focus on why we don’t have the critical data needed to make our criminal justice system better, more fair, and yes, less secretive.
This season, we won’t be advocating for anything extreme. We’re just simply asking, why don’t we know seemingly critical and obviously useful information that could help us all as a society be more safe. It could also help us work together, like I was able to do back in Centre County. Tell transparent stories about what was going on in the criminal justice system.
Like last season, the bedrock of our reporting is open records requests, hundreds of them across all 50 states, and to a wide variety of police departments, courts, and other agencies in the business of delivering justice. What we gather from those requests helps us shape our focus. We zero in on what we don’t get back, where the data gaps are, where there is missing information, and how those voids leave us asking the same simple question, Why Don’t We Know?
Why Don’t We Know is produced by the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information. It is written, reported, and hosted by me, Sara Ganim, with help from students at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications.
Our research consultant is Brittany Suszan. Our editors are Amy Fu and James Sullivan at WUFT in Gainesville, Florida. Original music for this podcast was composed by Pete Readman. Sound design and mixing is done by James Sullivan.
For more information, please visit our website at www.whydontweknow.org
Transcript created by Rev.com