In Feb. 2012, I singled out a “stunningly clever” series of stories in the South Florida Sun Sentinel that exposed dangerously reckless driving by hundreds of off-duty police officers across the state. I named it an investigative-reporting “best of the week.” Today, the Pulitzer Board declared it the best of the year.
The Sun Sentinel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for “Above the Law,” a three-day project meticulously reported by investigative reporter Sally Kestin and database editor John Maines. The project used data from toll transponders – like those used with the EZ-Pass system – to determine how fast off-duty officers were driving when they were off the clock. (By analyzing how long it took for a vehicle to pass from one toll location to the next, Kestin and Maines could calculate the average speed each car was traveling.)
The paper found 800 officers from 12 police agencies routinely driving 90 to 130 mph on roads with a top speed limit of 70 mph. One officer routinely traveled 100 mph or more on his commute into work – until a state trooper pulled him over for going 120mph in a 65mph zone. It was that traffic stop that sparked the series.
This was not simply gotcha journalism. Florida officers have been involved in hundreds of accidents while off-duty, and the Sun Sentinel reported that 21 motorists have been maimed or killed by speeding cops in Florida since 2004.
The series prompted reforms that will make Florida’s roads safer. Now that’s public service.
The intense battle over universal – or not-so-universal – background checks for firearms purchases further illustrates the deep cultural divide over guns, pitting those who see the checks as a profoundly obvious common-sense step to stem the supply of deadly weapons to criminals and the violence-prone against those who see it as an expensive hassle that will inconvenience legitimate gun owners while doing little to keep guns out of the wrong hands.
But what’s involved in a background check anyway?
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Connecticut is making headlines today with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s signing of what is likely the toughest gun control law in the nation. But elsewhere in the nation, officials continue to move the other way, passing legislation that broadens gun rights, from easing restrictions on obtaining gun permits to expanding the areas where guns are allowed.
A month ago we published an online map showing the split between states that primarily were pursuing gun-control legislation (shown below in blue) and those that were primarily considering gun-rights laws (shown in red). The handful of states considering a mix of laws are shaded yellow.
A story last Sunday explored the legislative divide over gun proposals. And now, with Connecticut’s action, we’ve made our latest update to the map, which clearly tilts red. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have passed or are primarily considering tighter gun control, while in 26 states, legislators generally introduced new gun-rights laws.
Legislatures also have been quicker to pass gun-rights legislation. Among states where laws have been enacted (shown below in darker red and blue), 11 have expanded gun rights while three, including Connecticut, have tightened restrictions on guns.
Click the image below for a larger interactive map providing details of gun legislation in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The release this week of search warrants related to the Sandy Hook school shooting opened the window a little wider on the tragedy and on life inside 36 Yogananda Street, where Adam Lanza prepared for his deadly rampage. But confusion remains over certain elements contained in the warrants. Here are some of the lingering issues.
Did Adam Lanza’s mother give him money to buy a gun?
The warrant certainly states that she did. The list of evidence seized from the house includes “One (1) holiday card containing a Bank of America check #462 made out to Adam Lanza for the purchase of a C183 (Firearm), authored by Nancy Lanza.”
But it’s unclear if there is any such weapon made with that designation. Mossberg in the past made a shotgun numbered 183, though it was sold as the 183-D and the 183-K. There is also a Czechoslovakian-made pistol with the model number CZ-83, although Lanza would not have been old enough immediately to purchase a pistol in his own name (but would have reached the required age of 21 in April 2013).
Kodak makes a C183 digital camera and there is some speculation that there may have been confusion over two objects, both of which are operated by “shooting.” But it’s also possible that C183 is not intended to refer to a model number, but some other designation, such as an ID tag at a gun store. So did Nancy Lanza explicitly indicate that the check was intended for the purchase of a firearm? We don’t know, and prosecutors Friday did not respond to a request for clarification.
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Every year, an estimated 89 residents of Hartford County pull up stakes and head for uber-hip King County in Washington, home of Seattle and Starbucks and Nirvana. But the Census Bureau says even more people – 110 – move in the opposite direction, leaving the Seattle area in favor of Hartford County, home of, you know, the New Britain busway and at least one Cheesecake Factory.
That’s one of the intriguing tidbits found in a new release of Census data showing migration in and out of the nation’s 3,000 counties. Hartford County attracts about 17,500 people a year from other states, while giving up about 20,500. And as the map below shows, there are stories in the patterns of migration. Red areas indicate counties to which Hartford loses residents – more people move out of the Hartford area to live in those counties than relocate to Hartford from there. Blue areas show counties with a net migration in favor of Hartford County. Counties shaded dark red and dark blue indicate a net inbound or outbound migration of more than 100 residents a year.
Not surprisingly, Hartford County loses residents to more than 20 counties in Florida. Collier County, home of Naples, Fla., attracts an average of 130 Hartford County residents each year, while only eight people are lured from Collier County to Hartford.
But for eight other Florida counties, Hartford enjoys a net increase in population. For example, an average of ten people move every year from Hartford County to Osceola County, which includes the southern tip of the Disney World complex. But an estimated 83 people move the other way.
Excluding moves within Connecticut, the most lopsided migrations involve Kings County, N.Y. – which is Brooklyn – where each year Hartford County loses 48 residents, but gains 603; and Wake County, N.C. – home of Raleigh – which attracts 355 Hartford County residents every year, while giving up only 50 who move north.
Click the image below for a larger, interactive map of migration in and out of Hartford County. And click here to access the “Census Flows Mapper” to view data for any U.S. county, including the ability to parse the numbers by age, sex, race and ethnicity.
The U.S. Census Bureau – continuing its quest to be known as America’s merry band of lovable nerds – is getting in on March Madness with a bracket game designed to test your population knowledge. The game pairs states or the 64 largest metropolitan areas and challenges players to select the area with the larger population. (Who knew Georgia had more people than Michigan!)
There are five preliminary rounds leading up to the final match to select the most populous of the states or metro areas. Players receive a point for each correct guess of the 63 pairings. And unlike NCAA rules, when you’re done, you can click a button and the computer will shuffle the players and deliver a new round of match-ups.
These may be tough economic times, but individuals, corporations and special-interest groups still found a spare $6.3 billion to shower on last November’s presidential and congressional elections, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
That’s a record, and roughly twice what was spent on national elections 12 years earlier. The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign financing on the website opensecrets.org, reports that about $2.6 billion was spent on the presidential race, on top of nearly $3.7 billion spent on congressional campaigns.
President Obama directly spent more than all of his Republican rivals combined – about $738 million for the president and $625 million for the GOP candidates. But lopsided spending by parties and outside groups flipped the numbers in favor of the Republicans, bringing the total spent on the presidential election to about $1.1 billion on behalf of Obama, and nearly $1.5 billion on behalf of Mitt Romney and other Republicans.
In races for the House and Senate, $1.7 billion was spent directly by candidates – slightly less than half of all spending. Connecticut candidates spent more than their fair share, thanks to a $50 million race run by Senate hopeful Linda McMahon, and a bruising race to fill the vacant Fifth District Congressional seat. No Connecticut winner spent less than $1 million – even if they had no real competition.
Below is a breakdown of all spending by candidates in Connecticut. Winners are listed in bold. Candidates who participated only in primary elections are listed in italics.
No court or federal agency has ever deemed parking tickets racked up by college students to be “educational records” protected by privacy laws.
But when student journalists at the University of Oklahoma sought parking-ticket data from their school – to determine whether student-athletes or other VIPs were getting their tickets fixed – the university refused their request, insisting the records were covered by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. That stance is at odds with rulings issued by courts in two other states, as well as the practice at at least one other public university: UConn, which provided that very data to the Courant several years ago without a fight.
Open-records experts say the reporters at the Oklahoma Daily would likely win if they took their school to court. But that could cost tens of thousands of dollars. So what are student journalists to do? Enter FOIA Shaming, a new project from the Student Press Law Center designed to needle public officials who withhold public records on flimsy grounds.
There’s the University of Maryland, which refused for more than a year to produce records showing disciplinary actions taken against students found to have committed sexual assaults on campus.
And the University System of Georgia, which tried charging a student paper nearly $3,000 to fulfill a Freedom of Information Act request. After 140 days – and the intervention of a private lawyer – the school system cut the bill by 90 percent.
The launch of the blog site corresponds with Sunshine Week, held annually around the birth date of James Madison, an early champion of open government, who semi-famously declared: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Know some shame-worthy public-records behavior at your school? The Student Press Law Center is inviting submissions for the blog here.
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