Five Journalist Tips On Holding Police Accountable

An investigative reporter shares his tips for getting information from local police departments and forcing change.

Detroit Police vehicle

Nationwide protests against police brutality and structural racism have sparked a lot of interest in holding law enforcement agencies accountable.

“We wanted to offer our best insights for how someone who is feeling fired up about these policing issues can learn more about their local department.” — Andrew Ford, Asbury Park Press

New Jersey-based investigative reporter Andrew Ford recently wrote a piece for ProPublica offering members of the public five tips on how they can investigate police activity in their own community.

Ford tells WDET’s Jake Neher that citizens have many tools they can use to get information from law enforcement.

Click on the player above to hear investigative journalist Andrew Ford on his five tips for investigating police.

1. Understand the policies and laws that govern police conduct

Ford says you want to know what is in-bounds and what isn’t. You also want to see whether the rules are written in-line with best practices followed elsewhere or if they are out of date.

“Ask the department for its policies on the practices that concern you, like restraining suspects or the use of pepper spray or Tasers,” Ford writes. “You may also need to request rules set by a county or state authority. Ask for written copies. You may be required to file a formal public records request. And if there is no existing written policy, that might be something worth questioning itself.”

2. Know that you are entitled to public records that can show whether rules are being followed.

The government has “tons and tons” of documents that citizens are entitled to, “and you should go get them,” says Ford.

Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act begins with a presumption that all records are open records, with some exemptions. 

“Especially at the local level, there is a good chance that you might be the first person to gather up a trove of records and analyze them.”

3. Identify the players in charge and engage with them.

You want to know who is responsible for the issue that you’re concerned with. Make sure you’re questioning the right person, says Ford.

“A police chief might be bound by rules that are set at the county or state level. And if that’s the case, you may want to contact those higher authorities.”

4. Present your findings to them in a fair and persuasive manner.

“That’s Journalism 101,” says Ford.

Be thorough in your presentation. Show the harm done by the problem that you’re concerned about on both the small, personal level, as well as the larger scale. “Try to capture the totality of the problem,” he says.

Also make sure to try to understand counterpoints to the issue. Ford says understanding perspectives that might not align with your own will allow you to ask more focused questions

5. Follow up.

“Follow up relentlessly until change is made,” says Ford. He says it’s rare for change to be made after a single news story or a single phone call from a concerned citizen.

“You’re probably going to have to repeat yourself. You’ll probably have to follow up — as every good reporter does.”

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  • Jake Neher
    Jake Neher is senior producer for Detroit Today and host of MichMash for 101.9 WDET. He previously reported on the Michigan Legislature for the Michigan Public Radio Network.