Monday, October 10, 2016

Point of Impact: Interview with Eva Ruth Moravec

Grits contributing writer Amanda Woog recently interviewed fellow Grits contributing writer Eva Ruth Moravec about her new project, Point of Impact, a multimedia investigative journalism series documenting 19 officer-involved shootings of unarmed people in Texas.  Today, the Houston Chronicle published Eva Ruth's most recent story, "Irving officials stay silent on shooting involving officers."  And another recent Point of Impact article reported on three shootings at gun ranges and ran in the Austin-American Statesman.

In the interview, Amanda and Eva touched upon different recently-launched projects documenting officer-involved shootings, including Point of Impact and Amanda's Texas Justice Initiative; the challenges in reporting these kinds of incidents; and what Eva hopes people engaging with her project will take away.

Listen to the podcast here, and check out the transcript after the jump.

Amanda: Hi this is Amanda Woog with Grits for Breakfast and the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis. I'm here with Eva Ruth Moravec. Eva is a freelance reporter with a decade of print journalism experience and a master’s student at the UT School of Journalism. Eva just launched a new project called "Point of Impact" which is a reporting series about officer involved shootings of unarmed people here in Texas. Thanks Eva for being here today.

Eva: Thanks for having me Amanda.

Amanda: So Eva tell us about your project and why you're undertaking it.

Eva: So just over a year ago I watched eagerly as the Texas Attorney General's office started to post reports online of officer involved shootings in accordance with the new state law. At the time I was taking a data journalism class for my master's degree, and I decided to start a database of the reports so, similar to the one that you also created. My interest in the subject was fueled by my years of experience as a public safety reporter and then later a government reporter in San Antonio and here in Austin. And I wasn't exactly sure what I would be doing with this database but I just thought it was interesting and that if this information was available that we should be tracking it. So, then I started having conversations with Scott Henson of Grits for Breakfast and he suggested that I write stories about some of the shootings. And so from that I decided to submit a grand proposal to the Koch Foundation, to report a series of shooting profiles and I was very grateful to have had that proposal accepted. So now my plan is to spend the next year exploring 19 separate shooting incidents and find out more about why they occur.

Amanda: So you mention that your funding comes from the Koch Foundation and I think some people might be surprised to hear they're interested in this kind of project. But really they've been getting more and more involved in criminal justice reform and I've noticed not only from an economic or fiscal perspective but also from more of a justice perspective as well. What do you think was their interest in your project and the reason for funding it?

Eva: Well the Koch Foundation is actually funding many criminal justice projects right now. At least soliciting proposals for criminal justice projects. They're very interested in finding out more about what's happening these days. I was skeptical, initially, of taking money from a foundation such as the Koch Foundation, but they are extremely hands off, assuming that I do what I said I would do in my proposal. There's no one looking over my shoulder, watching my reporting, even giving me experts to interview, there's none of that, no strings attached. I think that they are really interested in just getting information. I think the economic perspective is a big one, finding out, you know, what we're doing wrong if we spend so much money on criminal justice and we have such bad recidivism. They want to answer questions and they think that research will help them with that.

Amanda: Great. So a few projects have launched recently that cover police shootings in Texas, including my own, the Texas Justice Initiative. Can you give us a quick summary of how the Texas Tribune’s Unholstered, TJI, and your project overlap and/or complement each other?

Eva: Well I think first and foremost its really great and important that we have these projects now looking at use of force in Texas. I think that the more eyes that we have on this at once, the better, and that we will be getting some really helpful and useful information from this. Your project, the Texas Justice Initiative, takes an unprecedented in depth look at in-custody deaths. Your data also includes officer involved shootings but only in the cases that end up in a fatality. Separately, the Unholstered project from the Texas Tribune presented data that 36 law enforcement agencies reported to the Tribune on how often officers pull the trigger. This data was really beautifully presented and- but it does rely on self-reported data from this 36 city set. And their timeframe is from 2010 until last September, which is right at the point where my project takes over. So there is some overlap, but I'm looking specifically at the incidents since last September that would have been reported to the State based on this new law.

Amanda: And of course this new law only requires reporting when someone's been injured or killed by a shooting so the Texas tribunes Unholstered is for anytime that an officer pulls a trigger.

Eva: Exactly. And one more thing that these three projects can tell us is that, while we are getting more numbers and we're- these projects are trying to present these numbers in ways that people want to see them and that they make an impact, but what we've already seen is that our numbers are only as good as they can be. I mean, we don't- still with the number of shootings that I have reported, or that we've reported that took place in the last year, there're inaccuracies. The Texas Tribune’s data depends on the departments for reporting so there could be inaccuracies with that. So even though we do have these separate projects going on, the data that we're getting may still be incomplete.

Amanda: Right, so the quality of the data really depends entirely on the quality of the data that's submitted, ultimately by the law enforcement agency.

Eva: Exactly.

Amanda: So you and your project will be reporting stories of people who were shot who were unarmed. Why did you choose to report just the stories where the person was not armed?

Eva: A couple of reasons. One, I think that the shootings of unarmed people tend to spark very emotional public outcries and that people have a really hard time grappling with why somebody who's unarmed is shot and sometimes killed. That's just something that I think the public has a hard time understanding and so I thought this might be a chance to inform people more about something that they don't get. Another reason I chose to focus on unarmed people is because in research it's helpful to have a set of, you know, your case set that you're looking at. And instead of trying to, wean out of some interesting cases within the 168 shootings that we have reports on for the last year. I wanted to look at a chunk. There were 33 of the 168 shootings that involved an unarmed person and, so I filtered some of those cases out for various reasons, but wanted to look at a complete set of these cases to find out why these are happening.

Amanda: So your reports are coming out in a series and are investigative. And you're also working with different newspapers across the state and have your own website, where you’re documenting your research. What are the advantages to the form that you're using in your project to report these kinds of stories?

Eva: Well, as a print journalist I'm used to the daily stories and pressures and I understand the limitations that's placed on those journalists. But with this project I actually have more time on my side. So one advantage, that is definitely one clear advantage, that I have at least months that have passed since these incidents have taken place. That will hopefully lead to more information that can be divulged about these incidents since internal and criminal investigations can take time and law enforcement is not able to discuss the shootings during that time. So I have one advantage of hopefully more information being available. And one other advantage that I see to this type of reporting is that I can put more effort into trying to tell the other side of the story, or the other sides, as there are usually more than just two. When you're working on a daily deadline, you have to get as many sides as you can. But in some instances you might have the family of somebody who was shot, that are very willing to talk to you and police are very unwilling to talk to you because of the limitations on their own investigations. So sometimes those stories come across as one sided or incomplete, because of the limitations on law enforcement at the time. So I'm hoping that, again with this time buffer, that I can have a little bit more meat to those- the other side or sides of the stories.

Amanda: So have you been able to speak with officers directly who have been involved in these shootings?

Eva: I have. It's initially a tough thing to convince officers to do. For the most part, I think that they are used to the circumstances that I just explained, that the media has, you know, limited time and they're only able to mostly tell one side. They have some bias against, journalists and how reporters tell these stories. Once I overcome that and explain to them what the project is and what I'm doing and that I'm hoping to get this perspective, I have had officers who open up to me and actually are excited to share their side, because it's something that hasn't come out yet. And they feel like it's maybe a chance for them to explain their actions in a way that the public hasn't heard yet. So I think that, I'm hoping that more and more officers will find this to be therapeutic or helpful or just adding some closure maybe for them, for these incidents, that they've been through and they go through quite a bit also.

Amanda: And how do you think the public will benefit from hearing those- that so-called "side" of the story?

Eva: I think it's a huge gap that the public isn't aware of what happens to an officer after a shooting. They're used to going to work with the same people, and doing the same things, dealing with these high-stress situations with this brotherhood, sisterhood, family of law enforcement. After a shooting they're taken away from that and they aren't allowed to talk about what they've gone through. So it's a very unusual, you know, set of circumstances for them and they're very unfamiliar with what they're going through. So there are law enforcement agencies now that are increasingly adding peer support for their officers for situations like that because a grand jury process can take a year. You know, and in the meantime these officers are just waiting to find out will they be indicted? Will they not? And so I think that the public will learn quite a great deal about what officers go through and how these shootings can affect them too.

Amanda: So what can we learn through the narrative form and investigative reporting, that we can't learn through governmental data reporting? Which is kind of, like, more the angle that I've taken with "The Texas Justice Initiative."

Eva: I think that data is extremely important and it's great at filling in many blanks. In this case, the data that we get from the one page reports answers: who, what, where, and when. I think that narratives or qualitative research can answer the why. So numbers are very important, but they almost always lead to more questions about why this is happening. So I'm hoping that by adding these rich descriptions, narratives, and interviews, maybe together this will be a more complete picture and answer more questions.

Amanda: And what have you learned so far about the circumstances under which Texas police officers shoot unarmed people?

Eva: I think, probably my first and maybe longest lasting lesson is that these incidents are much more complex and complicated than what people usually respond to, you know, the knee-jerk reaction that people usually give them. It's hard to see the complete picture from a breaking news story, and yet that's what many people gauge, you know, history based on. They base their truths on these breaking news stories and they aren't always complete or accurate. And so I think that- that's the biggest lesson that I've learned is "keep an open mind" throughout this whole process and don't jump to conclusions based on, you know, the initial press conference or even a dash-cam video. There is so much more that goes into these than just a few soundbites or something that'll fit into a nightly news small clip.

Amanda: And of course that can go both ways. So that can be, whether it's from the initial press conference that you have with the chief of police, or if it comes from, you know, maybe a family outcry from the beginning.

Eva: Absolutely, I think that law enforcement are being asked to respond to these shootings faster, to have a reaction to them more immediately and that that has been both good and bad in different situations. Sometimes chiefs have said some things that they have to later step back.
You know, vice-versa. So it, yeah it can really, it goes all ways, definitely.

Amanda: What are the challenges you've faced so far in your project?

Eva: I would say getting law enforcement to open up is probably the biggest challenge, and I expect it will continue to be the biggest challenge throughout this project. For many different reasons, but I'm hoping to continue to overcome that. Another challenge is just getting information, getting documents and getting open records from agencies. You can imagine that with 19 different shootings that's more than 19 agencies that I'm requesting information from, and each one has a different interpretation of what should and shouldn't be released. And each one has a different response to my request so that's very time consuming and can be very challenging as well.

Amanda: Can you give an example of maybe particular challenges you face with that?

Eva: An initial surprising challenge was, for me was the law enforcement do not have to release their use-of-force policies. There's actually an AG ruling on that that they do not if it's stuff that's more than just what you would expect- a general policy. If there's specifics that the agency can prove would put their officers in danger. So that was kind of surprising to me. I figured I'm a taxpayer I should be able to see the policies that an entity is creating for me as a customer but that's not the case. I have found though that, you know, wording is very important in these requests and by drafting subsequent letters, requesting information, I have been able to get some of those policies that I was initially denied.

Amanda: And some law enforcement agencies, I understand, have handed over their use-of-force policy, it's just that they're not required to.

Eva: The majority did without a question, I had a small handful of agencies that fought those request out to the AG's office, and that's how I learned that they were not necessarily public. But then I have had some success in re-crafting request and gotten those policies even so.

Amanda: So we've touched upon this a little bit, but just to ask explicitly, how has your project been received by law enforcement and other stakeholders?

Eva: I think that initially law enforcement and those who are advocates for law enforcement, their first reaction is, "well, how many people are- how many officers are people shooting?" I have to explain to people that that is not the focus of my project. It is important, and it is something that we need to pay attention to and it's actually part of the same law that requires these one page reports, they also require reporting on officers who are shot. But I think that people are interested and the reactions that I've gotten once people understand what I'm doing, it's positive. That this is information that we need and that, you know, this is stuff that we need to report out. I haven't really received any explicitly negative reactions. I think it's just a filter kind of thing where these people are coming from, if it's- and some people tend to get defensive if you question what they're doing. I think that's natural reaction so- overall it's been a positive reaction, I think, from law enforcement, stakeholders, the like. And also from families of people who were shot by the police, they really want these to get- these stories to get out there as well.

Amanda: So what do you hope will come of your project?

Eva: Well, I guess I hope that people will gain more of an understanding of these cases. I think that these are, in many cases, the worst case scenarios. That something went wrong that caused an officer to shoot somebody who's unarmed. Whether that was someone ignoring an officer's commands or a de-escalation missed opportunity, or an object was mistaken for a gun. There are many lessons that we can take from these stories and I really think that the main one is to slow down. We need to slow down in our judgments, slowdown in our expectations that someone might have a gun or that someone is doing something illegal or inappropriate.

Of course I would never want law enforcement to be in danger and to feel like they can't defend themselves because we put so much of our trust in law enforcement and we rely on them for our public safety. So I just, I really hope that people will slow down and take the time to read these stories and really let them sink in and maybe come to the understanding that what they thought initially is not the case, or that there's more to them than, you know, what meets the eye.

Amanda: Well Eva, thank you for chatting with me today and I look forward to reading more of your stories.

Eva: Thanks for the time Amanda, appreciate it.

Disclaimer: The University of Texas is a free-speech campus. Opinions expressed here do not reflect the official position of the University of Texas or any of its constituent colleges or departments. Thank you for listening, we'll see you next time.


Anonymous said...

It seems it would be shorter to say "police shootings". Who makes newsreaders and bloggers add all those extra syllables no matter how many ad-revenue seconds are burned? Did the FOP demand it?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

FWIW, I tend to use "police shootings," though it's a bit ambiguous, leaving to context whether police are doing the shooting or the ones being shot. Amanda tends to use "officer-involved" because that's the language in the statutes that require reporting, so it's less ambiguous and better-defined. I don't consider either version right or wrong.

paprgl said...

Thanks. Appreciate the post.