For 7 years, L.A. Times’ Homicide Report has wrested stories from grim data

We’ve heard a lot about Chris and Laura Amico’s Homicide Watch – and for good reason. The site tracks homicides in Washington, D.C., (and, as of just over a year ago, Chicago and Trenton) from police report to conviction, giving victims and communities attention and coverage that local papers don’t have space or staff to.

It’s a valuable resource, the success of which has inspired other news outlets to embark on similar projects. But Homicide Watch had its own inspiration: the Los Angeles Times’ Homicide Report.

“When we started brainstorming Homicide Watch in 2009, we tried to draw lessons from existing crime mapping and homicide tracking projects,” Chris Amico says. “The two that always stick out are the L.A. Times’ Homicide Report and the Oakland Tribune’s Not Just a Number (we also drew ideas from the L.A. Times War Dead project). They really captured the human impact of violent crime and used data effectively to tell a larger story … They do great work.”

One big difference between the two: Homicide Watch is an independent startup; Homicide Report has the institutional support of the L.A. Times. Increasingly so – the paper recently invested more into the project. A dedicated, full-time reporter, Nicole Santa Cruz, was hired in June 2013. Last month, the Times upgraded and redesigned the site and kicked off its relaunch with a front-page story about Westmont, which has the dubious honor of being the most deadly neighborhood in Los Angeles County.

Were it not for HR’s data, L.A. Times assistant managing editor Megan Garvey says, “I don’t think we would’ve picked Westmont, honestly, I mean … it wasn’t even like it stood out to us in our heads.”

It did stand out in the data. Data team member Ken Schwencke ran several analyses of HR’s numbers to find LA County’s most deadly neighborhood. Over and over again, the 1.85 square mile unincorporated area between Inglewood and Watts came up.

“Every kind of piece of analysis I did pointed at Westmont,” he says.

Though the area was under-covered by both law enforcement and the media, its residents were all too aware of its violence. When reporting out the story, there was no shortage of people to talk to about the toll it had on their lives.

“Everywhere [Santa Cruz] turned there was someone who had something to say about what it was like to live there,” Garvey says. And in the story’s comments section, “people said ‘yeah, this has been going on for years but no one really pays attention to us. We’re sort of lost down here.’”

Covering those “lost” stories was the reason why crime reporter Jill Leovy created the Homicide Report in 2007. There simply wasn’t enough room in the newspaper to cover every single homicide in Los Angeles County, so only the ones deemed significant or newsworthy were mentioned. Homicide Report was a space to give every homicide its due. No one would be forgotten. And readers would be able to truly see the scope of violence in their city. It quickly became one of the paper’s most-read blogs and remains its most popular data project today.

Leovy stepped down after a year, but her passion has been passed on to her successors. It has to be: with 10 million people in Los Angeles County, it’s a big job, even though the numbers of homicides is almost half what it was when the blog began. Garvey has edited the blog since late 2008, often in her spare time.

“Watching reality TV and plugging in homicide data,” she says.

Last year, she told L.A. Times editor Davan Maharaj “either we need to invest in it or we need to stop it.” Maharaj chose the former, and Santa Cruz joined the team.

“She hit the ground running,” Garvey says. “She’s been out all over the community”

In fact, Santa Cruz was absent for the first half of our interview because she had to rush to the scene of a homicide (Robert Leonard Brewer, 21, stabbed to death in – yes – Westmont).

“Honestly there is not ever ever a typical day,” Santa Cruz says when she finally gets the chance to call in. One thing seems to remain the same: “I am not in the office very often.”

She says the hardest part of the job how big her coverage area is, both in population and area. Santa Cruz doesn’t just report out homicides as they happen – she meets with community leaders and law enforcement, goes to vigils and courtrooms, talks to gang interventionists and grieving families.

Santa Cruz has found those moments to be some of the most rewarding parts of the job, though they are, of course, always mired in tragedy.

“I’m really fortunate that I can walk up to someone’s house and they let me into their living room and they make me a cup of tea and they tell me these things about someone they really care about,” she says. “You’re really going into a community that is under-covered and under-served and bringing these stories to light.”

Homicide Report started as a blog. A simple map was soon added, and, after a 14-month dormancy, it was revived as a database in 2010, built by Schwencke. He also built the newest iteration, teaming up with designer Lily Mihalik. The map is now on the top of every page and the database can be filtered by more than one category at a time, which makes analyzing Homicide Report’s seven years’ of data much easier and shows off how valuable data-driven beat coverage can be.

“What we’re trying to do is create this really rich database that allows people to learn about the community on the whole,” Garvey says.

The blog posts have changed, too. The sidebar now has links to every story about the case, from the homicide to any arrests or convictions. Before, the post about the initial homicide would be updated with any developments, but that post was usually long-buried – it often takes years for homicide cases to go to trial.

Now, “you string together the information in a way that you’re providing a full account and not having to fish around for whatever happened,” Garvey says.

“You have all the information about one person’s death available on one page,” Schwencke adds.

It isn’t just readers who benefit from Homicide Report’s information. Some reporters have also integrated it into their articles. Garvey says she’d like to see it become “part of the DNA of reporting in the newsroom and not just a set-aside project. Have it inform how we operate as journalists … We’re not all the way there on that but I think we’ve made a lot of progress.”

Sure enough, one recent story used Homicide Report data to show how rare murders were in Burbank. Ruben Vives also uses its data to give more context to his reports.

But then, Vives knows quite a bit about the Report’s usefulness — he used to write it.

“That was my first reporting gig with the L.A. Times,” Vives says. “I got very addicted to covering every murder, just because one had hit close to home [Vives' uncle was murdered] and two, I just felt like it was an important thing that we needed to do as a paper.”

Vives says he learned a lot from the beat, a trial-by-fire boot camp in conducting interviews, building sources, following tips and just getting familiar with a coverage area through on-the-ground, shoe leather reporting. Those skills have served him well in the years since: Vives now covers southeastern Los Angeles for the paper, an area with which his time at the Report made him well acquainted.

And, oh yeah – one of Vives’ first big stories after moving off the Report was the city of Bell and its ridiculously high salaries for city officials. You may have heard of it: the series won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2011. (Leovy’s no slouch, either. Her book, Homicide Report: Understanding Murder in America, goes on sale in July.)

Homicide Report also shows how news outlets can engage with the communities they serve. Its comments section is pre-moderated, but both Garvey and Vives say they tried to be as hands-off as possible.

“This is a really raw subject, a really awful subject,” Garvey says. “What we want to do is create a conversation about these issues.”

“It shows people just by seeing the numbers and by seeing those red dots all over this one specific area, it just makes you aware of ‘wow, I had no idea how bad things were there,’” Vives says.

In the future, the Homicide Report will include data going back to 2000, giving reporters and readers even more context. Garvey also wants to find more ways to make the stories as comprehensive as possible – from the crime to the conviction. The redesign does that already, but keeping tabs on so many cases is difficult. The initial homicide information comes from the police department and coroner’s office, but there isn’t the same clearinghouse for arrests and trials. For now, Garvey says readers often help out, sending them updates. Schwencke is looking for ways to link homicides through police report and district attorney case numbers.

But their biggest hope for the future is that the Times continues its investment in the project.

“My dream for the Homicide Report is that in 20 years the L.A. Times is still doing it,” Garvey says. “And there are a lot fewer homicides.”

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