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Washington Post’s Investigation Into Reckless Gunplay by Police Wins 10th Annual $25,000 Selden Ring Award

by Rhonda Fleming

FOUR REPORTERS FOR The Washington Post are winners of the 10th annual Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting. The journalists – Jeff Leen, Sari Horwitz, Jo Craven and David Jackson – collaborated on a five-part series, “Deadly Force: An Investigation of D.C. Police Shootings,” that was published in November 1998.

Professor Murray Fromson, director of the School of Journalism, USC Annenberg School for Communication, that administers the award, said the Post’s investigative team will share this year’s $25,000 prize. One of American journalism’s most coveted honors, the award will be presented at a USC reception in the spring.

“At a time when crime continues to be a major concern of the American people, the Post’s reporters have reminded us of the importance of focusing attention on the conduct of the cops as well as the criminals,” Fromson said. “It also demonstrates that a newspaper widely known for its reporting of the nation’s government is just as capable of committing substantial resources to coverage of its community’s problems.”

The Washington Post’s entry was selected from 96 nominations.

“Deadly Force: An Investigation of D.C. Police Shootings” meticulously documents an ongoing pattern of reckless and indiscriminate gunplay by D.C. police officers with inadequate training and little oversight. Based on an intensive, eight-month effort by a team of reporters, editors and researchers, the series proved that the District of Columbia police have shot and killed more persons per resident in the 1990s that any other police force of a large American city.

Under provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, the Post’s investigative team obtained previously undisclosed FBI data on justifiable homicides by police officers. It was soon clear that D.C. police officers were shooting people at an unparalleled rate. As their inquiry deepened, the Post researchers realized that the FBI data did not meet the newspaper’s own standards for statistical accuracy. The Post then began compiling its own database, gathering information on police-involved shootings from more than two dozen large cities. In D.C. itself, researchers painstakingly analyzed 464 shooting episodes that occurred between 1994 and 1997, involving 576 officers firing 2,271 bullets.

In a statement, the 1999 Selden Ring Award judges termed the Post’s investigation as exemplifying “the best elements of classic investigative journalism, dogged reporting, lucid writing and great storytelling that humanized both the victims and the police. The Post team also took advantage of data-based reporting and used it well. The Post should be proud of the impact and changes the series has already brought to the Washington police force.”

Since publication of the series, the D.C. police force has instituted wide-ranging reforms and new policies. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey has announced a sweeping retraining program for the entire 3,550-officer department. The training includes a doubling of the hours of firearms instruction and teaching officers alternatives to deadly force.

The police department has also agreed to revisit investigations into shootings involving Washington residents Christopher Worthy and James T. Willis after the Post highlighted contradictions in the official versions of these two incidents. In an effort to strengthen probes of police shootings – a chronic deficiency documented in the Post’s series – the department has created a “shoot team” of experienced professionals to investigate future incidents.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which reviews police shootings in the District of Columbia to determine if criminal laws have been broken, has created a special civil rights unit to improve oversight of police shootings and excessive force cases.

Established in 1989 by the late Southern California business leader Selden Ring, the award recognizes the year’s outstanding work in investigative reporting. Staff or free-lance reporters for U.S. newspapers, magazines or wire services are eligible.

THE 1999 RING AWARD NOMINEES were judged by a panel chaired by Robert Rosenthal, editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Other panel members were Peter Bhatia, managing editor, The Portland Oregonian; Gary Cohn, investigative reporter and two-time co-winner of the Selden Ring Award; Susan Paterno, contributing editor, The American Journalism Review; Sharon Rosenhause, managing editor, The San Francisco Examiner; E. R. Shipp, ombudsman, The Washington Post; and Rick Tulsky, staff writer, Los Angeles Times. (Shipp excused herself from the final voting that selected her newspaper as the 1999 Selden Ring Award winner.)

Washington Post’s Investigation Into Reckless Gunplay by Police Wins 10th Annual $25,000 Selden Ring Award

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