Pulitzer Prize Winning Use of Public Records

Columbia University announced its 2009 Pulitzer Prizes in Journalism, Letters, Drama and Music earlier this week, awarding a prize for Local Reporting to the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Arizona, for its investigation of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO).  The Tribune spent several months submitting public records requests related to MCSO operations and conducting interviews to learn more about the efficacy of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's high publicized illegal immigration enforcement program.  The project provides an interesting case study on how to use law enforcement agency statistics to understand department trends and priorities. The Tribune found that since the MCSO launched its illegal immigration program in 2006, the department's response times decreased, arrest rates fell, and excessive overtime caused budget issues.  There was also evidence of racial profiling.

A complicating factor for the Tribune: the MCSO does not enter much of its data online or track statistics.  The department also does not contribute to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports because of admitted record keeping problems.

The reporters put much of the collected data online, and in some instances created their own interactive databases and maps compiling the information.  Following are some of the types of public records used in the analysis, and what was specifically learned from them.

MCSO Arrest Records and Case Files

  • The criminal arrest rate has dropped (i.e. arrests have dropped while criminal investigations have risen).
  • Despite the concentration on breaking up human smuggling rings, only low level arrests have been made.  Instead, the illegal immigration unit sweeps densely Hispanic communities and targets day laborers.
  • Many of the illegal immigrants arrested had committed no other crime.
  • Deputies make traffic stops when they are suspicious that vehicles contain illegal immigrants; probable cause is often improvised.  Furthermore, many of these stops were not even documented in statistics.
  • Clearance rates (i.e. how many investigations end with an arrest or are closed for other reasons) were not well documented, and many non-immigration related records had insufficient investigation or follow-up.

Emergency Response Times and 911 Call Logs

  • Calls are decreasing.  However, deputies met the 5 minute standard response time only one third of the time, meaning MCSO responses were late the majority of the time.  The Tribune consolidated this data into an interactive map and chart in Part I.

Budget and Finance Records

  • Excessive staff overtime costs are not being met by grants for the program and are instead costing taxpayers money.  Arpaio claimed the overtime was due to reasons such as large scale investigations and increased criminal activity, but these records show otherwise.  It instead resulted from using SWAT teams, helicopter units, patrol dogs and extra deputies more often for illegal immigration related arrests, as well as from increased paperwork for the additional criminal investigations.
  • Taxpayers bear the cost of lawsuits precipitated by the MCSO's refusal to release public records.

Personnel Records

  • To ensure there were 15 deputies in the illegal immigration unit, Arpaio transferred deputies from other departments.  These transfers were documented on paper as "temporary transfers," so the former units were left understaffed.