April 13, 2022

The American Rescue Plan Act means a lot of money is headed into state and local budgets, and one of the places it can go is into police departments for public safety. How can local reporters follow how it’s used?

For our second free, virtual training on how to cover the American Rescue Plan Act, we looked at where to find the data, how to use it and how to report when it’s not available. You can catch up with general resources for covering ARPA and our first workshop on ARPA and public health. (Thank you, again, to our sponsor, the Joyce Foundation, for making this training free!)

For this training, I’m so excited to share that The Marshall Project is building a database to help people navigate where that money is going locally. It’s still in development, but if you’d like to check out the prototype, fill out this form.

Our training started with The Marshall Project’s Anastasia Valeeva and Weihua Li, who walked us through how complicated it is to find the numbers. Some additional problems include duplicate reports (Clark County, Nevada, and Clark County, Washington, appear to be duplicates, even though they’re different places); typos; unclear locations; broken links; and missing reports.

For The Marshall Project’s dashboard, they’ve compiled 3,777 interim reports from local governments and nearly 400 recovery plans. The dashboard they’re building should allow users to do keyword searches and analyze spending from interim reports. You’ll also be able to filter by category or state then category.

For instance, a keyword search showed them this:

Screen shot courtesy Weihua Li and Anastasia Valeeva, The Marshall Project

Want to explore the database and help The Marshall Project build it out? They’d love your help.

We were also joined by Samah Assad from CBS Chicago, who started with a list of story ideas and leads to FOIA right away. They include:

  • Arrest/case outcomes

  • Search warrants and disparities

  • Body camera efficacy

  • Settlements/payout

  • Police/EMS response times

  • Civilian complaints

  • Salaries/positions/roster

  • Records retention

  • Training

  • Internal emails

Once you get data, Assad recommends you:

  • Poke holes — accept you’re not the expert (yet) and find one!

  • Look for disparities. That’s a story.

  • Build a list of questions for your data, for experts and for the agency

  • Take detailed notes about any changes you made to it

  • Don’t rush to report

And if that data and records don’t exist?

  • Build your own

  • Try to crowdsource/social callouts

  • No data? That’s a story

  • Take a solutions journalism lens. Who has data and what does it tell us?

Also, Assad suggested the following approaches when covering public safety:

  • Don’t take police narrative as gold

  • Fact check what they say publicly

  • Become expert on internal paper trails and policies

  • FOIA internal emails/texts

  • Is there an appeals process in your state?

  • Take time, build sources

  • Look for loopholes in FOIA laws

As Assad told us yesterday, never accept a blacked-out report.

Finally, you can find a video and resources on hands-on data work from IRE, our training partner, here.

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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