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Inside our story on race & the State Police

The Investigator
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September 26, 2019 | spotlightpa.org
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The long and short
» How we proved the State Police was an outlier for not tracking race during traffic stops
» Meet Charlotte Keith, our reporter covering economic development and grant programs
» A roundup of the most important journalism across the state — without all the noise
» Our whip-smart winners from last week's Riddler and a whole new puzzle to ponder
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“If you are serious about addressing any kind of discriminatory conduct in law enforcement, you have to keep this data."

— Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, upon learning the Pa. State Police no longer collects race data from traffic stops

Behind the story: How our reporters proved the Pa. State Police were outliers in how they tracked race

Daniel Simmons-Ritchie gives you an exclusive look at the effort it takes to produce accountability journalism that gets results.

In 2012, the Pennsylvania State Police stopped tracking the race of drivers pulled over by troopers, making it far harder to detect racial profiling. (Courtesy of The Inquirer)

In our first piece for Spotlight PA, my colleague Angela Couloumbis and I found that the Pennsylvania State Police had quietly stopped collecting data on the race of drivers its troopers pull over, making it far more difficult to detect racial bias.

Comprised of about 4,700 troopers, the State Police is one of only 11 statewide law enforcement agencies in the U.S. that does not collect race data during stops, and by far the largest, according to a Spotlight PA survey of all 50 states.

Three days before our story was published, in response to our findings, the State Police said it would reverse course and resume collection.

It's a great example of journalism that gets results. But it wasn't easy.

Our survey might sound simple: Call each agency, ask a question, get an answer.

But in practice, these surveys are rarely quick or straightforward.

What often happens is this: You call an agency, ask a question and the person who handles media inquiries doesn’t know the answer. You have to call and email repeatedly over several days or weeks to get a response.

There were exceptions: About 20 state police departments answered our questions almost immediately. The Utah Highway Patrol got back to us within two hours. The Louisiana State Police described their policy on our first call.

For other departments, things went less smoothly.

In North Carolina and Mississippi, we had to call a dozen times over several days to find the right person to speak to. The Massachusetts State Police told us to file a public records request — a process that can take weeks or months — rather than answer a follow-up question. They eventually relented.

It took more than a dozen calls and emails to get a clear response from the Tennessee Highway Patrol. The New York State Police, although courteous and quick to respond, initially gave us incorrect information.

Over three weeks — between myself, Angela, and our colleague Charlotte Keith — we tracked down answers from all 49 state police departments. (Hawaii doesn’t have a statewide patrol.) Why did we do it?

It's one thing to point out an issue and quote experts saying it's unusual or out of the ordinary. It's another thing to go out and collect the cold, hard data to prove the case. Ultimately, those findings helped drive positive change.

We're continuing to focus on the Pennsylvania State Police. If you have tips or want to suggest an investigation, contact Angela at acouloumbis@spotlightpa.org or visit spotlightpa.org/tips.

— Daniel

» This story took three weeks, three reporters and dozens of calls and emails to produce. If you value in-depth journalism, become a Founding Donor today.
Meet our team

Meet our investigative reporters and find out what they're doing to ensure your tax dollars are well spent and your government is serving the people.

Charlotte Keith
Investigative Reporter

What she covers: Community and economic development, auditor general, insurance, banking and securities and the Commonwealth Finance Authority

At Spotlight PA, I’m going to be following the money, broadly defined: the swirl of state and federal grants, subsidies and economic development spending that flows through the Capitol, often with little scrutiny.

I’ll be trying to make sense of that churn and working to uncover how decisions really get made — and who benefits. I'm particularly interested in shining more light on the actions of the Commonwealth Finance Authority.

I’ll also be covering two of Pennsylvania’s most important industries: banking and insurance. I want to learn more about state regulation and what’s at stake for consumers, and I want to hold bad actors to account.

Before coming to Harrisburg, I worked in Buffalo, New York, where I got a crash course in economic development and state procurement covering a billion-dollar program to boost the city’s flagging economy.

If you work in state government, the private sector or simply know something I should investigate, I want to hear from you. How is money being wasted? Where are things not working the way they’re supposed to? Help me understand where more scrutiny is needed.

— Charlotte

» Email Charlotte at ckeith@spotlightpa.org or call her at 717-836-6560. For more secure ways to send tips to our team, visit spotlightpa.org/tips.
Free coffee!

The next stop on our statewide listening tour is this Friday, Sept. 27 from 10-11:30 a.m. at i-ron-ic coffee shop, 256 W Philadelphia St., York, PA. If you live nearby, come out, meet our team and grab a free coffee on us. We'll be there with our friends from PA Post.

Thanks to the folks in Erie this week who welcomed our team and educated us on the city's successes, its collaborative efforts and its continuing challenges. Special thanks to The Erie Community Foundation for organizing.

What is a “listening session”? It’s just a fancy way of saying we're getting out of the newsroom and into the community to hear from you about how we can better focus our investigative reporting on the issues you care about most.

Only the best

We're cutting through the news each week to give you a premium collection of the most important journalism from across Pennsylvania.


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Our weekly puzzle from The Investigator. Send your answers to newsletters@spotlightpa.org for a chance to receive a shout-out here and some cool Spotlight PA swag.
Up in Smoke (Case No. 3): The fire marshal is called to investigate a late-night blaze that destroyed a home. She interviews the owner of the home, and the owner says he and his wife had enjoyed a fire in the fireplace throughout the evening before going to bed. The owner says he has no idea how the house caught fire, and he and his wife slept until the blaze woke them up. The fire marshal inspects the brick fireplace and chimney, finding soot and ash, suggesting the fireplace recently had been used. But she immediately knows the owner was lying about the fire the night before. How does the fire marshal know?
Stumped? Get a hint.

Last week's answer: The knife could not be between pages 3 and 4 of the newspaper because they are back to back. Congrats to Dave B. who cracked the case and was selected to receive some Spotlight PA swag. And kudos to the rest of our newsletter subscribers who answered correctly: George S., Zachary G., Richard K., Kelli F., Arlene J., Gerry K., Lelah M., Frank H., Nate C., Claudia M., Oscar A-L, and Jon N.

Stay tuned for next week's winner and a whole new puzzle.
We depend on you
Our investigative newsroom is funded by nonprofit foundations and people like you who value hard-hitting, nonpartisan journalism that cuts through the noise and gets to the truth. This work takes an enormous amount of time and resources. We know you value this work and we ask for your support so we can continue to provide the journalism you deserve. Make a tax-deductible contribution right now and show your support for our team of reporters.

Together, we can hold the powerful to account.
» This week's Riddler hint: The smoke.
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Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with the PIttsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/Patriot-News. All donations for Spotlight PA are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law and go to the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which directs the money to Spotlight PA through The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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