"What the Sun Sentinel has done is a service to all police agencies because if they did not know they had a speeding problem, now they do…I, like most chiefs around, if you ask them everybody's going to tell you, `We didn't know it was this bad'"

– Miami police Chief Manuel Orosa, as quoted in, 36 Miami cops to be punished, Sun Sentinel; June 5, 2012.

Three approaches to data journalism

Derived truths

With no direct evidence, the Sun-Sentinel reporters turned to indirect evidence, from which, with a little math, would strongly suggest that at least a few police officers were frequently breaking the law as well as their departments' internal regulations:

Video of the trooper chasing and eventually handcuffing the uniformed officer went viral, and the stories drew hundreds of comments. We suspected plenty of other cops were routinely speeding, but how could we document it?

We considered GPS devices in police cruisers, but too few agencies used the technology, and those that did immediately put up a fight about releasing the data.

Then it dawned on us: Florida’s toll system, SunPass, records the date, location and time down to the hundredth of a second when a car passes through a toll booth. If we got those records for police vehicles, we could calculate their speed based on the distance and time it took to go from one toll location to the next.

SunPass officials initially told us the data was not public, but ultimately agreed with our position and released 1.1 million toll transactions for 3,900 South Florida police transponders. Three months and many miles later, we published the results of our investigation (“Above the Law,” sunsentinel.com/speedingcops).

The Sun-Sentinel posted a database of the records that indicate speeding (72,000+ incidents). Here's what that looked like:


The power of looking at the past

Speeding laws exist in part to prevent high-speed accidents. If police have been speeding, then we might expect to find high-speed accidents involving police. The Sun Sentinel team found that in the span of 7 years, Florida cops were involved in 320 crashes blamed on their speeding. Only 37 were ticketed.

From the IRE profile:

Database specialist Dana Williams analyzed seven years of accident reports and found that speeding cops in Florida had caused 320 crashes, killing and maiming at least 21 people. Only one officer went to jail – for 60 days.

The victims included a 14-year-old girl killed by a sheriff’s deputy driving twice the speed limit to a routine traffic stop and a college student now severely brain damaged after a police officer slammed into him going 104 mph for no apparent reason.

The crash data provided another angle – that police officers receive special treatment. Of the accidents blamed on police speeding, only 12 percent of the officers were ticketed. By contrast, 55 percent of other motorists who were speeding when they crashed received a citation.

Impact of the story

In June 2012, the Sun-Sentinel reported that 138 officers statewide had been punished, including 39 Miami-Dade detectives who had lost their take-home cars for a month. The Sun-Sentinel also reported that the police chief said that one or more officers would be fired.

The Sun-Sentinel well-deservedly won the 2013 Pulitzer for Public Service.

Incidentally, this story still continues to be a public affairs data story: The state trooper who ticketed the Miami cop is suing 25 Florida law agencies, alleging that they violated the Driver Privacy Protect Act. The trooper filed a public records request and found that her state license information had been accessed by "88 different officers in 25 different agencies over 200 times in just a three-month span"