By Kasia Kovacs

Ask anyone the biggest news story of the past year, and chances are you’ll hear some variation of “Ferguson” or “police shootings.”

It’s a hot topic, and not without reason. After the shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo., the police chokehold that killed Eric Garner in New York, and the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed while playing with a fake gun in Cleveland, Ohio, the ensuing protests and public outcry were palpable around the world.

As reporters, we have a responsibility to hold those who abuse power accountable. One of our best tools? Data.

But how should we use that data? “Policing the police” panelists Ben Poston of the Los Angeles Times, Topher Sanders of the Florida-Times Union and Rob Barry of the Wall Street Journal shared advice on how to uncover law-breaking law enforcement. 

Find the right data and ask the right questions

Ask for police reports and legal settlements from police departments. Find out if there have been wrongful arrest settlements and, if so, how many. Are there any trends? And if police departments dance around releasing the information, really press those departments to release all of the data, Barry said, instead of partial databases.

Don’t stop at police departments, either. Find state and district attorneys and request data on drug crimes. Head to your state’s juvenile justice department and ask for juvenile crime data to look at sentences for young offenders. Ask for salary data for prosecutors in your local office. Some of these elected officials can control their own budgets; keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. 

Be skeptical of the data

The data might be dirty, which is what Poston found in his investigation of the Los Angeles Police Department. He was doubtful of reports that crime in Los Angeles had been steadily decreasing for twelve years, and he decided to check it out.

As it turned out, police had misclassified numerous crimes, labeling “burglary” as “trespassing” and “theft” as simply “lost items,” among other misclassifications. When Poston cleaned up the data, he got quite a different story. Crime hadn’t been steadily decreasing after all. After cleaning the data, the numbers shot back up.

Don’t neglect shoe-leather reporting

Sanders recommends dropping by the homes of police officers and citizens —without telling them first. Be straightforward and get right to your questions. If your source is not at home, write a handwritten note and leave it in her door or mailbox.

It’s equally important to stay in contact with your sources, even if you think they hate you.