Citizen Green: Investigative reporting strengthens democracy

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

We’ve encountered something almost miraculous in the past two months: At least two instances of official America bending to the will of the people.

The US Justice Department finding that the police department in Ferguson, Mo. has systematically violated the Constitutional rights of black citizens validates the insistent demands for change made by thousands of people from all walks of life who have taken to the streets in the suburbs surrounding St. Louis demanding change.

And we’ve seen the police department in North Charleston, SC swiftly fire Officer Michael Slager and charge him with murder after a bystander’s video captured him fatally shooting Walter Scott, a black motorist who was running away from the officer. In the face of national outrage over the repeated killing of black men, the North Charleston police understood that a large segment of the public will no longer abide by flimsy excuses that the officer had no choice but to take lethal force because he was in fear for his life.

Much as the North Charleston Police Department is to be applauded for its swift response, a few troubling contradictions remain: Before the video surfaced, the department was standing behind its officer. The only difference between Scott and dozens — maybe hundreds — whose lives are taken by police every year, protesters in South Carolina argued, is that there’s video to prove that the officer took a life without justification.

Many people have rightfully hailed Feidin Santana, who recorded the cell-phone video of the atrocity as a hero. And he is. But how do we deal with the fact that police around the country view citizens who videotape them with hostility? How do we understand the near constant harassment experienced by Ramsey Orta, who videotaped the police killing of Eric Garner, by officers with the New York Police Department in Staten Island?

It seems that when citizens, whose taxes underwrite the work of the police, are unable to effectively scrutinize the work of these same public servants who are charged with their protection — and the police routinely snuff out black lives with impunity — then our democracy has become severely impaired.

It’s an old story, and one that is stubbornly persistent. As the great American author Toni Morrison has written, “The killing of young black men has never changed all that much, with or without hoodies.”

As has been the case in every period of history when democracy made small advances, people are speaking out and putting their bodies on the line to defend human rights and to remind the world that all lives, but particularly black lives, have value.

At Triad City Beat we’ve committed resources to a rigorous examination of our local law enforcement and courts to expose deeply rooted disparities in the quality of justice that people of color experience. Last November, we published a story revealing that homicides in Greensboro and Winston-Salem involving victims who are young black men are statistically less likely to be solved. In January, we published a story about a young, black college student who was stopped by a Winston-Salem police officer without apparent cause, then allegedly humiliated and ridiculed while the car camera that was supposed to hold the officer accountable mysteriously malfunctioned. And in March, we published a story about a black man in High Point who was held on a murder charge for 11 months without evidence.

These are stories that require laborious efforts — patiently gathering documents and combing court records, analyzing complex and often contradictory sets of facts, and gingerly interviewing family members, cops and court officials about topics that are difficult and often personally embarrassing.

The amount of effort that goes into an investigative story is exponentially higher than a scoop about a new brewpub opening or a routine government meeting — and I’ve happily done both. We don’t write investigative stories to generate sensational copy or score victories against adversaries in some imagined alternate universe where journalists and civil servants play the roles of professional wrestlers in a recurring grudge match. We pursue these kinds of stories in the hopes that they will give citizens the tools to engage their government and craft a stronger democracy.

But a story without readers is like a tree falling in the forest. If no one was there to see it, did it really fall?