Sunshine Week: The Washington Post

Editor’s note: In celebration of Sunshine Week, I’ve asked journalists from around the country to tell me how they use public records in their reporting. 

DAVID S. FALLIS, investigative writer/reporter at The Washington Post

STORY 1: Recovered guns form a sea of steel from the District to Prince George’s County (interactive)

  • This story is about the round-the-clock, day-in and day-out recovery of firearms in the District and Prince George’s County. Combined, the two agencies have seized nearly 50,000 guns since 2000.

STORY 2: ShotSpotter detection system documents 39,000 shooting incidents in the District (interactive)

  • This story is about a hidden gunshot detection system across part of t the District that has logged about 39,000 gunshots since 2006. The data gathered by the system offers a fuller, more accurate picture of gunplay in the city.

Both stories relied heavily on public records and required requests through local open records laws to obtain those records.

For Sea of Steel, I filed requests for copies of firearms recovery logs (computerized) maintained by DC and PG cops. Every time a gun is recovered, it goes to the respective firearms examination units. There, personnel log a range of information about each gun into the database before conducting any ballistic examinations. I requested copies of those databases for all years for which they were available. After some back and forth, I obtained the data. I used database software and Excel to parse, clean and analyze the data. Other public records used in the story included police incident reports for individual cases, and court records for court cases.

For Shotspotter, I filed requests for copies of the database of data gathered via the Shotspotter detection system. Every time a gunshot is detected, the system alerts DC police who dispatch officers to the location of where the gunshot was recorded. That underlying data is all recorded in a database, which I requested under DC’s FOIA law. There were some technical issues that had to be resolved, but eventually police disclosed the database to us. The data was the cornerstone of the package, which included an interactive element with the stories. In this story, we also relied on police reports and court documents.

Quite a few folks around here worked on both of those packages. Andras Petho, a journalist from Hungary, was here on a fellowship and worked with me on both stories. Others involved in the packages in some way (from design to web interactive, etc.): Dan Keating, Ted Mellnik, Katie Park, Emily Chow, Todd Lindeman, Bonnie Berkowitz, Sohail Al-Jamea, and James Smallwood. Also, photographers.

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Thanks to David S. Fallis for sharing his story. To get updates on what journalists I’m featuring during Sunshine Week, follow me on Twitter @RecordsGeek. If you are a journalist and would like your public records story featured on this blog, email kahinchcliffe@gmail.com.

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