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The Guardian, Donovan Slack and Invisible Institute honored for contributions to open government


Abbi Martzall, SPJ Awards Coordinator, (317) 920-4791,
Rachel Semple, SPJ Communications Coordinator, (317) 920-4785,

INDIANAPOLIS — The Counted by The Guardian US, Donovan Slack and the Invisible Institute have been awarded the Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. The SPJ Board of Directors and Freedom of Information Committee honor people or organizations each year for their notable contributions to open government.

The Counted, The Guardian US
The Counted began at the beginning of 2015, conceived after the protests of 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, by Jon Swaine, Oliver Laughland and Tom McCarthy, later joined by Jamiles Lartey and Ciara McCarthy. This investigation-turned-vast project included an interactive database, investigative articles, infographics and videos numbering and telling the stories of people who died in interactions with the police and the officers who killed them.

At the time, the federal government kept no comprehensive record of police killings. The Guardian US team tallied more than 1,100 in 2015, 2.5 times greater than the 2014 total given by the FBI’s voluntary reporting. During a series of contentious fatalities and unrest in major cities, the project investigated claims of racial bias in police use of lethal force and measured against reliable, complete data.

In response to the project, the FBI announced an overhaul of its system and the Justice Department announced a new program using Guardian methodology; both programs will record all deaths caused by law enforcement including gunshot, stun gun or fatal injuries. The project also inspired new legislation and has continued into 2016.

Lee Glendinning, Editor of the Guardian US, said “From March 18, the team’s articles began explaining to readers through text, charts and graphics why government counting efforts failed – revealing through an open record request that only a fraction of 18,000 police agencies were reporting to the FBI program – and what our investigation had found.

“Through dogged and careful work, our reporters overcame the obstructions of state and national authorities in order to obtain and analyze this information for the public. They injected desperately needed factual findings into a live debate of national importance that had been restricted to speculation and anecdote. In doing so, they prompted the federal government to act.”

Donovan Slack
Slack received a Veterans Affairs inspector general report about a VA medical center in Wisconsin that raised concerns about opiate prescriptions being hidden from the public. Richard Griffin, acting inspector general at the time, told her that the report wasn’t released due to a lack of conclusive evidence of wrongdoing.

Upon looking into the matter, not only did Slack find sources briefed by Griffin’s office who stated the inspector general was trying to protect the identity of the doctor prescribing dangerous amounts of opiates, she succeeded in getting the inspector general’s office to admit the truth.

“Slack sifted through 10 years of congressional reports from his office and discovered there were 140 [withheld reports] dating back to 2006, including cases where veterans were harmed or died. After her stories ran, Griffin overhauled his office’s policies for withholding future reports” said Craig Schwed, Assistant Managing Editor of USA Today/Gannett Washington Bureau.

Thanks to Slack’s hard work, lawmakers are demanding greater transparency from Griffin’s replacement and legislation has been passed and signed into law requiring the VA inspector general to release future investigative reports within three days of completion.

The Invisible Institute
The Invisible Institute, a nonprofit journalism production company, published more than 56,000 police misconduct records for more than 8,500 Chicago Police officers in its project Citizens Police Data Project.

Alison Flowers, of the Invisible Institute, said "Citizens Police Data Project also had a major impact on media coverage of the Laquan McDonald case. Two weeks after the database launch, the City, on a judge’s order, agreed to release dashcam video of 17-year-old McDonald’s death at the hands of police officer Jason Van Dyke … the Citizens Police Data Project provided crucial context about Van Dyke’s record of unsustained complaints, revealing a pattern of alleged excessive force and racial slurs.”

Data from the project show that less than three percent of Chicago Police misconduct complaints lead to disciplinary action, with even lower rates for officers charged with high numbers of complaints, and highlights a significant racial bias. After release of the Citizens Police Data Project, both the Police Superintendent and head of the Independent Review Authority were fired, the Department of Justice launched an investigation and a police accountability task force was created.

“In its efforts to serve the common good and the principle of freedom of information, the Invisible Institute is creating a national model of transparency and accountability in law enforcement.”

The recipients will be recognized at the SPJ President’s Installation Banquet at Excellence in Journalism 2016 in New Orleans, on Sept. 20.

SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to informing citizens; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and fights to protect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. Support excellent journalism and fight for your right to know. Become a member, give to the Legal Defense Fund, or give to the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.


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