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How the Sun Sentinel reported its Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of off-duty cops

The Sun Sentinel won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service on Monday for its "well documented investigation of off-duty police officers who recklessly speed and endanger the lives of citizens, leading to disciplinary action and other steps to curtail a deadly hazard." Investigative Reporter Sally Kestin and Database Editor John Maines wrote a piece for the Summer 2012 IRE Journal, reproduced below, about their investigation into off-duty- cops.


Above the Law: Off-duty police caught driving from 90 to 130 mph

By Sally Kestin and John Maines, Sun Sentinel

We’d all seen it before – cops flying by with no emergency lights and no obvious reason to be speeding like a race car driver.

But a traffic stop in October brought it all to a head. A Florida state trooper clocked an off-duty Miami police officer driving in excess of 120 mph on his way to work.

Video of the trooper chasing and eventually handcuffing the uniformed officer went viral, and the stories drew hundreds of comments. We suspected plenty of other cops were routinely speeding, but how could we document it?

We considered GPS devices in police cruisers, but too few agencies used the technology, and those that did immediately put up a fight about releasing the data.

Then it dawned on us: Florida’s toll system, SunPass, records the date, location and time down to the hundredth of a second when a car passes through a toll booth. If we got those records for police vehicles, we could calculate their speed based on the distance and time it took to go from one toll location to the next.

SunPass officials initially told us the data was not public, but ultimately agreed with our position and released 1.1 million toll transactions for 3,900 South Florida police transponders. Three months and many miles later, we published the results of our investigation (“Above the Law,” sunsentinel.com/speedingcops).

Nearly 800 officers from a dozen police agencies drove from 90 to 130 mph during the previous year, often while off-duty and commuting to or from work. Most did not appear to be fighting crime – they were city cops outside their jurisdictions.

The lead-foot officers drove the fastest late at night and before 6 a.m., when shifts changed and traffic was lightest.

The worst speeder in the bunch? The same Miami cop caught going 120 mph by the state trooper. Our analysis showed he commuted at speeds above 100 mph on 114 days and only slowed down after his traffic stop hit the news.

We knew we’d find speeding, but the extent of the problem shocked us – and police brass. When we shared our findings with the Miami Police Department and dropped a 3-inch stack of printed spreadsheets on the table, the major doing the interview said: “All of those are ours? Wow! 120 mph? Wow!’’

“We write speeding tickets,’’ he said. “It’s not very prudent to be out violating the very laws that we enforce.’’

On exclusive Miami Beach, where we found more than 50 cops driving well above 90 mph back and forth to work, the police chief’s only consolation – at least they weren’t as bad as Miami. The day after our meeting, the chief issued a memo to his staff: “This type of unwarranted behavior will not be tolerated, and officers will be held accountable.’’

Measuring Miles

The investigation combined technology and data with old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting. Obtaining the SunPass data was just the first step.

To determine how fast the cops were driving, we needed to know the distance between toll booths, and to our surprise, the state did not have precise mileages. We ruled out measuring distances with our car odometers, which can be off for a lot of reasons, and went with the suggestion of traffic engineers – a portable GPS device.

Garmin and other manufacturers make units for joggers and cyclists that fit into the palm of your hand and are accurate to within a few feet. We went with a Garmin Edge that you can pick up on Amazon for $150.

With one person driving and another operating the GPS, we carefully measured each leg of our toll highways, logging a total of 2,500 miles over three counties.

We created a master spreadsheet in Excel with all of our routes and distances. That allowed us to quickly recalculate speeds if we found a mileage that needed tweaking. We’d make the change once and rerun a macro in Microsoft Access to fix it across all agencies. Excel and Access were also crucial in eliminating thousands of duplicate and bogus records that were produced in merging the data (trust us on this). We created a filtering process that got the data squeaky clean.

Special Treatment

About a month into the driving and number crunching, we realized we were onto something big and decided to expand the story, examining the consequences of police speeding and the culture of brotherhood that allows it to happen.

Database specialist Dana Williams analyzed seven years of accident reports and found that speeding cops in Florida had caused 320 crashes, killing and maiming at least 21 people. Only one officer went to jail – for 60 days.

The victims included a 14-year-old girl killed by a sheriff’s deputy driving twice the speed limit to a routine traffic stop and a college student now severely brain damaged after a police officer slammed into him going 104 mph for no apparent reason.

The crash data provided another angle – that police officers receive special treatment. Of the accidents blamed on police speeding, only 12 percent of the officers were ticketed. By contrast, 55 percent of other motorists who were speeding when they crashed received a citation.

To explore the culture and attitude toward speeding, we requested police internal affairs complaints and investigations. Those showed a clear pattern: speeding at many Florida police agencies wasn’t taken seriously unless it resulted in tragedy, and punishment for driving at excessive speeds was as slight as a verbal or written reminder to obey the speed limit.

Interviews with former cops and state troopers helped fill in the gaps and confirm what we knew anecdotally – cops extended a “professional courtesy’’ to each other, rarely stopping or ticketing their own. Even in their personal vehicles, police officers routinely “badged their way out’’ of tickets.

Results

The series produced immediate results. All the police agencies began internal investigations of the speeding documented by the Sun Sentinel. As of mid-April, 23 officers from three departments had been disciplined after police chiefs confirmed the lead-foot cops weren’t rushing to fight crime – they were just going back and forth to work. One city began monitoring its officers’ driving with a device that activates whenever they exceed the speed limit, and another started using the same method the newspaper employed – checking officers’ toll records. Three other cities are exploring GPS or other technology to catch speeding cops.

Hundreds of readers wrote or called the Sun Sentinel, thanking us for highlighting a long-standing community danger with indisputable evidence. And the best result – the cops actually slowed down.

Investigators at the Miami Police Department set up radar stings on fellow officers beginning last fall and regularly caught speeders until word of the Sun Sentinel investigation spread, said the head of the internal affairs. “There is without a doubt a difference,’’ said Maj. Jorge Colina.

Tips

Here are some tips to consider, if you’re planning a similar project:

  • Try to get the police transponder records from the toll agency. It will make your life much simpler than going to multiple police departments, where your request will not be greeted nicely or treated with urgency. One source will also ensure you receive data in a consistent format.
  • Before you invest too much time and convince your editors to buy a GPS, check with the toll agency to be sure that the times at each toll location are synchronized. In Florida, they operate off of a computer that is tied to the U.S. Naval Observatory’s master clock.
  • Also, find out where the cameras that read the transponders are located and whether there is any discrepancy between toll booths. For instance, do they always take the reading five feet before the car reaches the gantry? Consistency is what you’re looking for. And finally, ask if there are any significant maintenance problems or glitches that would create incorrect time readings in the toll records.
  • If you have to do your own measuring, drive the most common routes more than once to ensure you get the same result, especially if the distance is short. We had two well-traveled highways with toll booths less than two miles apart. Being off even a little could dramatically alter the speeds.
  • Measure each route in both directions. Entrance and exit ramps can vary – some are short, straight shots and others are large loops that can create differences of a half-mile or so.
  • Google Maps is a good back-up to check distances or as an alternative to driving, if you don’t have the time or money to spend on a GPS. Go to “Maps Labs” at the bottom of the page and make sure you enable the distance measurement tool.

Find the toll booth on the satellite map, right click and hit ‘’directions from here.’’ Go to your next toll location, and right click on ‘’directions to here.’’ We found the distances to be very close to the GPS. When they were off at all, Google was higher but usually by no more than one-tenth of a mile.

  • If you’re thinking of catching speeding cops by sitting on a highway with a radar gun, don’t waste your money. We tried that while we were waiting on the SunPass data, and all we got was wet – it rained.

The biggest problem with that method is that the cops, at least in South Florida, are reaching these excessive speeds at night and pre-dawn, and it’s too hard to identify cars in the dark. Even if you’re lucky enough to find a protected overpass like we did, you just can’t tell what’s approaching until it’s too late. Besides, the police agencies would no doubt poke holes in the accuracy of a radar device that isn’t calibrated or certified by law enforcement.

  • If you find speeding through toll records or some other method that involves your own calculations, take the results to the police agencies well before you publish to give them time to comment and an opportunity to take issue with anything you’ve done. We first went to our police departments a month ahead and checked in again before publication to vet the results.
  • Get the speeding policies for your police agencies. That will help you identify violations that may not be obvious.

Off- duty speeding was prohibited at all of our departments, but on-duty driving was murkier.The Miami-Dade Police Department set a cap on how fast cops could drive even in an emergency: no more than 20 miles over the speed limit. That meant that under no circumstances should Miami-Dade officers be going above 90 mph, yet we had more than 270 cops driving as fast as 115 mph.

“That is very disturbing,’’ said a major at the police department. “Speeding is a big problem. It’s a big problem not only for us but for every other police department.’’

Sally Kestin, an investigative reporter, and John Maines, database editor, have investigated fraud in FEMA disaster aid, children missing from the child welfare agency and flaws in Florida’s background screening for day care and nursing home workers. Their work has won state and national awards.

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