Yesterday, the Tampa Bay Times devoted the bulk of its front page to “Why Cops Shoot,” an extraordinarily ambitious reporting and storytelling project that details 827 shootings by Florida police officers. Launched online last week, “Why Cops Shoot” immediately garnered attention for the scope of reporter Ben Montgomery’s investigation and his colleagues’ blunt translation of their findings:
"Unarmed. Not wearing a seatbelt. Running away. Police are more likely to shoot if you’re black."
Montgomery spent more than two years gathering use-of-force reports from Florida’s nearly 400 law enforcement agencies. He wrote personal checks to cover the costs of record requests, and amassed a six-foot stack of documents that detailed six years of police shootings throughout the state, more than half of them fatal. “Nobody tracks these,” Montgomery told a Radiolab producer who visited him at the Tampa Bay Times. “The FBI doesn’t. State agencies don’t, for the most part.”
Montgomery spoke with CJR the day after “Why Cops Shoot” first appeared online. He described the evolution of his story, and the creation of the Times’ stark data visualization. And he recalled how the Times pursued its unique, devastating vision—even as other news organizations published similar projects first:
“Since we’ve been doing this, we’ve been beaten by everybody. Glen Smith at The Post and Courier in South Carolina did a whole massive amazing thing. The Washington Post has done a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on shootings. The Guardian US has done a big database on this. A couple of papers in Florida did the same thing. Our thing was, ‘We’re going to do it better. We’re going to take the time. And it’s going to be like something you’ve never seen before.’”
And it is.
After our conversation, Montgomery wrote online: “What happens backstage is…well, here you go.” Read the Times feature here, then take a look backstage at CJR.
Be sure to read these new stories from CJR and correspondents to the United States Project:
- “The teenage David Fahrentholds in Kansas.” An advisor to the blockbuster high school newspaper story that prompted a principal’s resignation shares his take on how the project came together.
- “They don’t want their patients to shop for healthcare.” The mostly untold story of a state transparency bill.
- “It’s not a problem unique to Chicago.” Takeaways from CJR’s recent forum on covering the city’s violence during the Trump era.
- The real threat to public media’s independence: “The relationship between Jacqui Helbert, WUTC and the University of Tennessee offers the public a laundry list of everything that can go wrong in a system where universities hold the licenses of—and therefore effectively own—47 percent of the public radio station organizations.”