Two years after California unsealed thousands of files documenting internal police investigations, NPR is working with member station KQED in San Francisco to launch a podcast examining how police departments investigate officer misconduct.
KQED criminal justice reporter Sukey Lewis hosts the podcast, called “On Our Watch.” The first episode was released Thursday. Each of the weekly episodes centers on one or two case studies selected to highlight a different aspect of the internal affairs and officer discipline processes at California police departments. The podcast will run for seven weeks and includes reporting from KQED race and equity reporter Sandhya Dirks.
“What we are trying to do is kind of show these pieces of this system and kind of create a portrait, if you will, of where the weaknesses are in this system and what these different cases happening in different places can tell us when taken together,” Lewis said.
NPR has collaborated with member stations to produce podcasts before, but the “On Our Watch” project is unprecedented in terms of how many records it deals with, lead editor Nicole Beemsterboer said. The podcast is also the first large editorial project NPR has done in collaboration with the California Reporting Project, a coalition of 40 newsrooms that have been working to report on the newly available police records.
Lewis acquired the files used to report “On Our Watch” through KQED’s participation within the California Reporting Project, which she co-founded. In 2018, California lawmakers passed a bill that granted access to all records of investigations into use-of-force by police officers. The law also made available certain records related to sexual assault and official dishonesty investigations. Newsrooms within the coalition have been collaboratively requesting records for the past two years.
Using those records, KQED put together a pilot episode, which it then brought to NPR in the fall of 2019 for editorial and production support. After workshopping the pilot, NPR greenlit the project as a limited-run podcast, in part because of the “extraordinary access” it gave into the world of police internal affairs investigations, Beemsterboer said.
“California retroactively made confidential interviews available to the public. So we were getting really, really raw tape of how police interact with their fellow officers who messed up in some way, not knowing that anyone would ever be listening.” Beemsterboer said.
She added that NPR found the subject of the podcast to be “incredibly relevant.” Though production of the podcast started several months before George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, the protests for police reform last summer gave the project a greater sense of urgency.
Listeners may find “echoes of George Floyd” in some of the examples featured in the podcast, Lewis said. For example, one episode includes a 2011 case in which an officer violently arrested a 16-year-old boy, knocking out his two front teeth. The boy was trying to buy candy at a convenience store when the clerk refused to accept a dollar bill.
“I think those echoes will be there for the listeners,” Lewis said, before warning that the podcast is not about Floyd. “(‘On Our Watch’) is a show that goes really deep into some of the failures of police accountability and kind of why it’s so hard to hold police officers accountable.”
The first episode centers on the story of Katheryn Jenks, a woman who called 911 in Rio Vista, California. The two officers who arrived ended up arresting Jenks, and in the process, she was bitten by a police dog.
Lewis said she chose to start with Jenks’ case in part because it demonstrates the impact of the police transparency law. Other episodes will touch on different themes and topics, ranging from sexual misconduct by officers to implicit bias and racism. The final episode will feature previously secret documents concerning the killing of Oscar Grant, whose death in 2009 sparked protests and contributed to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Throughout her reporting, Lewis has found that the processes for investigating and disciplining officers are not necessarily oriented towards accountability. Instead, cities create their procedures as a “way of dealing with their employees,” she said.
“It functions more like an HR system, and it’s about the city managing their risks and their liability,” Lewis said. “Part of the reason why, I think, the public is so frustrated by the lack of accountability is because it’s just not a system that is set up to necessarily provide that.”
Though the podcast will conclude in seven weeks, Lewis plans to continue sifting through records with the California Reporting Project. The coalition has made over 1,000 public records requests to more than 700 law enforcement and oversight agencies, and they are still waiting to receive some documents.
On NPR’s end, the network does not have any major collaborative projects planned for the immediate future, but Collaborative Journalism acting senior director Tamar Charney said the network is always looking for the right project. The initiative, which “On Our Watch” is part of, connects NPR with its member stations to create more ambitious journalism across the country.
“It’s really about centering stories in different parts of the country and working closely with member station journalists who live in communities all across this country,” Charney said.