Small paper’s ongoing investigation into local police leads to suspensions, resignations

The Lakeland (Fla.) Ledger has delivered almost daily installments this summer of a story of law enforcement dysfunction that seems more like a script for Reno 911 than a scandal plaguing a modern-day police department.

Five officers have resigned or been fired, others have been reassigned or suspended pending further investigation, and up to 20 people, current officers, former officers and city employees have been implicated. Five prominent citizens resigned from an advisory council before the first meeting.

City commissioners are struggling to isolate themselves from political fallout. And investigators have exposed a culture of sexual harassment and permissiveness, which includes documentation of police officers and staff members having sex in city offices, police cars, city parks and abandoned property.

About 200 people packed a town hall meeting this week, where most participants voiced support for the embattled police chief. A small number criticized the paper for being sensational, but at least one citizen defended The Ledger. Comments on the Ledger’s stories and letters to the editor have been more critical of the police department.

“Without [the paper] you wouldn’t know you’re spending $225,000 to keep a secret from yourself,” Kevin Kayden pointed out to the paper’s critics, referencing the legal fees the police department is spending to keep a grand jury presentment on the department’s public records practices sealed.

The Ledger, known in central Florida as “the newspaper with a heart” for its annual Winter charity campaign, was among several Florida papers sold last year by the New York Times Regional Media Group to the Halifax Media Group. Layoffs at the company and controversy over a non-compete clause (which was later dropped for existing employees) left many wondering how the changes would impact the newspapers’ capacity for significant journalism.

While there hasn’t been a comprehensive analysis of the group’s reporting as a whole, the stories coming out of Lakeland suggest that for the time being, the paper is serious about its role as a watchdog.

The Ledger currently has the equivalent of 54 full-time employees in the newsroom, 59 if you add the staff from the News Chief newspaper in nearby Winter Haven, Editor Lenore Devore told me in a phone conversation. That’s down from a high of 99 in 1999, but exactly the same as when the paper was sold to Halifax in early 2012.

It’s a small enough newsroom that, as editor, Devore is involved in the day-to-day operation. This particular string of investigations began as the police department became increasingly obstructionist about releasing public records and other information. Ultimately, the paper would string together a series of stories that revealed a host of bigger issues throughout the department, including a culture of incompetence and corruption.

In January 2012, Devore was just hoping to make it easier for her reporters to find out the day-to-day happenings at the police department, things like who got arrested and what crimes were happening. So she arranged a meeting with Lakeland Police Chief Lisa Womack to address increasing tension between her reporters and the department. Devore was hoping to find ways that would allow the paper gather information the public had a right to know, without having the process become onerous.

Devore said she left the meeting frustrated and with little hope that the chief was interested in instituting reforms that would serve the public’s right to access information from the department.

After that, there were more and more confrontations over records requests. Meanwhile, Devore was devoting resources to the small town of Mulberry, where city employees were routinely eating meals on taxpayers’ dime and overtime pay was out of control. Eventually, the city manager and a department head were arrested for criminal fraud and then fired.

But all that escalating tension between the paper and a variety of public officials had an upside, Devore said. Sources within many government agencies, motivated by their disappointment and dismay, began tipping off reporters, who were diligently trying to figure out what the police department was hiding.

Pretty soon, the paper was reporting on a grand jury investigation into public records violations and then a state investigation into criminal behavior in the department.

There was eventually a stack of stories about the police department’s discipline problems and ineptitude, including an off-duty cop’s road rage; deceptive practices during investigations and court proceedings; and a trend of questionable search techniques, including one where an officer forced a woman lift and shake her bra. And now there is a second criminal investigation.

“Probably the best thing that happened to us through this is we developed really good sources,” Devore said.

In the year before the sale, Devore reorganized her newsroom to create a two-person investigative team. Four full-time reporters have been working on the investigation into local police: , Matthew Pleasant, John Chambliss and. Pleasant and Chambliss will return to their regular assignments once the investigative team can spare them. The investigation has put a strain on the newsroom, Devore said, but has also energized it.

On May 6, the paper instituted a paywall, which has already exceeded the company’s goals. As far as resources go, Devore said it feels like she is standing on solid ground.

“Across the group, we’ve all been allowed to fill open positions, [since the sale]” she said. “We’re not cutting and we’re not asked to freeze.”

Investigative reporting in the United States has taken a big hit, according Pew’s State of the News Media 2013 report. And local investigations are perhaps the most vulnerable type of reporting at risk in the new journalism ecosystem. As the number of professional journalists shrinks, and as a burgeoning number of news organizations compete for the same breaking national and political stories, it’s hard to interest advertisers in stories that impact one small region of one state.

Yet individual citizens are probably more affected by their local police department and city governments than they are by national politics and federal policies. In Lakeland, there is only The Ledger; neither of the Tampa Bay newspapers or the Orlando Sentinel have bureaus there. Bay News 9, a local 24-hour cable station in Tampa Bay, partners with the Ledger to share content and staffs a small bureau in the town of about 100,000.

In addition to a reporting staff, it takes money to mount an investigation like this. “I don’t even know how much we’ve paid in attorney’s fees,” Devore said. “No one from corporate has told us to stop [asking for legal help.]”

For now there is a list, on any given day, of 20 to 25 stories that need to be pursued. Devore and investigative editor Lyle McBride (no relation to me) take turns helping reporters prioritize, chase leads and focus on the stories of the day, as well as longer enterprise stories.

While the Lakeland Police Department is consuming a big chunk of The Ledger’s reporting resources, Devore said the corruption in Mulberry was a reminder that if her paper isn’t watching the many other municipalities in Polk County, citizens are the ones who suffer.

“No one was watching them,” Devore said of that investigation into a city with one of the highest tax rates in all of Polk County. “For years this is going on and it took us months to get all the records and go through all the records. There’s just no one watching.”

“The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” will be available Aug. 1. The book is a compilation of essays and case studies edited by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, with a foreword by Bob Steele, for use in newsrooms, classrooms and other settings dedicated to a marketplace of ideas that serves democracy. You can find more information about the book here. On August 15, McBride will host a News University Webinar about the book.

Clarification: This story originally said Matthew Pleasant and John Chambliss were on the Ledger’s investigative team. They’re GA reporters who have been assigned to the paper’s investigation into local police.

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