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 firstname.lastname@example.org or visit spotlightpa.org/tips.