Judging judges, coming soon

When I get back to WNYC later this year, we’ll be working on a super exciting project. We won a prototype grant from the Knight Foundation to develop a tool on judicial elections.

We’ll be helping people “to make more knowledgeable decisions about judicial elections through a tool that will provide key information, insights and context about candidates, their views and the court system.”

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how courts work (and how they don’t), and I’m looking forward to spending even more time thinking about this soon. Also psyched to be working with the extremely talented Sarah Ryley, who is teaching a class at the New School that’s contributing to the project.

ps. Sarah just wrote an amazing court-related story for the Daily News and ProPublica, about the NYPD kicking people out of their homes through so-called “nuisance abatement” laws.

Stop and Seize: civil forfeiture in New York City

When someone is arrested in New York City, they empty their pockets, and the police take the things they have on them – cash, wallet, keys, phones. The arrestee gets a voucher, which might say the items are “arrest evidence,” or it might say “safekeeping.” Or it might say “forfeiture.”

Even if you’re not charged with a crime, or a case is dismissed and sealed, the police can still seek to keep your stuff, your car, or your cash.

That’s exactly what happened to Harold Stanley.

Last February, Harold Stanley was on his block one evening, in the Morrissania section of the Bronx. He decided to drive to McDonalds, and when he came back, sat in his parked car to eat.

“Next thing I know somebody’s tapping on my window, telling me get out the car,” he said. “And I said ‘For what?’ Officer said don’t make it harder than what it is.”

Police officers searched him and his car, then handcuffed him and took him to the local precinct. He wasn’t sure why he was under arrest until he arrived there, when he was told he made a drug sale. After several hours, he was released with a desk appearance ticket. But the $1,300 he had in his pocket was not returned.

How much cash is taken a year, from who, where those people live – that’s all unknown. There are virtually no public statistics on the practice of civil forfeiture. We were able to get information on money forfeited in the course of criminal cases.

The city’s District Attorneys seized $46 million through forfeiture in 2014, as part of criminal cases, according to records received through a Freedom of Information request. Those are criminal forfeitures. How much the NYPD took in civil forfeiture cases like Stanley’s is unknown. A Freedom of Information request from May is still outstanding. Also unknown: whether certain places or races are disproportionately impacted by forfeiture, since there is no data on where items are taken, and from whom.

Police also seize people’s cars – about 2,400 cars in 2014, according to a Freedom of Information request filed by Brooklyn Defenders Service. That’s what happened to Courtney Melvin. Police found a weapon in her car, and charged her passenger with weapons possession. Although she was not convicted of a crime, police still sought to keep her car.

For Melvin, as for many drivers, losing a car is a big deal. She works in Staten Island, and found herself commuting by ferry, train and bus.

There is a sort of bail hearing for cars, where drivers can ask for their car back while a criminal case is sorted out.

Thomas O’Brien, a lawyer at Legal Aid, brought the case, Krimstock v. Kelly, that created the hearing process. But fewer than 600 people requested a hearing last year, probably because that process can be confusing and opaque, involving lots of single-spaced forms and strict deadlines. The number of hearings actually held is tiny — just 15 last year, according to NYPD records. O’Brien said the cases that make it to a hearing are the tip of the iceberg.

“Underneath the surface, there are many, many more cases where the police are just seizing cars, and if they give them back, it’s because people are giving them money,” he said.

A cash settlement is usually between $500 and $2,500, attorneys told WNYC. Almost 300 people settled before their hearing in 2014. These forfeitures are a civil case, which means people don’t get public defenders. Most navigate the process with no attorney, because hiring someone often costs more than the car is worth.

This reporting was long and painstaking. And it feels like we’ve just scratched the surface. There may well be hearings on civil forfeiture at the City Council before too long. Ritchie Torres, who represents communities in the South Bronx hit hard by this practice, introduced a bill seeking more public data on civil forfeiture from the NYPD.

WNYC + Reveal on water prices

WNYC did a big series on water in the New York City area, and I did a story on how the high price of water affects low-income people in the city. I met Maria Munoz, who was facing foreclosure in part because her water bill was so high. She and her family live on an extremely modest budget, and had cut back on every possible use of water – doing laundry at a laundromat instead of at home, washing dishes in a bucket instead of running the water, not flushing after they peed. And yet the bills were still out of control.

Here’s Maria Munoz’s story:

That story wound up on an episode of the fantastic podcast Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting. You can listen to that episode here.

More than 90,000 NYC kids go through metal detectors every day

Remember how I mentioned that I really don’t like being told I can’t have data? A while back, I asked the NYC Department of Education which schools had metal detectors, and eventually was told that information wasn’t public. So I filed a freedom of information request, which was denied, on safety grounds.

The implication seemed to be that making public where the metal detectors are would jeopardize the safety of students. But this struck us as odd, because the metal detectors are big objects in the publicly-accessible lobbies that anyone can see when they walk in off the street.

What we really wanted to know was whether there was a disparate impact on communities of color, or students of color. And we couldn’t figure that out without knowing where the scanners are. So we called schools and asked. We used our calls to cross-check data collected by Inside Schools and the NYCLU.

We found that:

Almost two-thirds of high school students in the Bronx go through a metal detector; none go through one on Staten Island. Students in Brooklyn are a little more likely than average to go through scanning, and those in Manhattan and Queens are less likely.

Citywide, almost half of black high school students are scanned every day — compared to about 14 percent of white students. We also found that 43% of English Language Learner high school students are scanned every day.

We also wanted to know what impact the scanners were having on school safety. The NYPD did not respond to our requests for information on weapons confiscated in schools, but the department had previously told other news outlets that 712 weapons were found by metal detectors in schools during the 2013-2014 school year.

If every high school student currently at a scanning school was scanned each school day, that would amount to 15,964,020 scans over a school year — or one dangerous item found for about every 23,034 scans.

Tracking illegal hotels in New York

Being on WNYC’s Data News team means that sometimes I do my own data-driven stories, and sometimes I get to work with other reporters in the newsroom on their ideas that involve data. Which I love. I help them think about what kinds of data might help tell the story they want to tell, where they might be able to find it, and then help them analyze it once they get it.

My colleague Ilya Marritz got a list of inspections of illegal hotels. Those are often short-term rentals through sites like Air BnB. Ilya, developer Alan Palazzolo and I had some fun sorting through the data, and came up with a nice little story and set of graphics.

As Ilya said, it can get weird out there.

Here are excerpts from some of the more unusual reports obtained by WNYC:

“3 Unidentified Females Asians Stated They Arrived Yesterday And Are Leaving Later This Week. They Pay $12 Per Night And Called The Place The ‘Family Hotel.’”

“Tennant [sic]…In 5a She Has Lived There For 5 Years And Does Not Rent Out. She Stated That There Is An Ongoing Dispute With Her Neighbor In 4a Who Constantly Calls Police On Her. Unable To Determine Transient Use.”

“Upon Arrival 1 Male White Refused To Identify Self To Anyone. Also Denied Entry To Buildings And Fire Department To Conduct A Safety Inspection. Male White Video Taped Interview, Was Belligerent And Would Not Give Any Information To Show That Would Show That He Had Permission And Or Authority To Be On Premises.”

“Unidentified Woman Opened Door And After Saying She Did Not Live There Attempted To Slam Door On Identified Police Officer. Woman In Back Screamed To Her Dont Let Them In. Male Came And Id Self As Owner Of Multiple Apts And Said We Should Be Going After Real Criminals Not What They Are Doing.”

(As a side note, this was a great example of when a big document dump can be used both to assemble figures and as a great source of narrative detail.)

Me and my sister

Every once in a while, the station where I work, WNYC, offers everyone in the newsroom a chance to pitch stories on a particular theme. This summer, the theme was “first-timers.”

I wound up doing a story about my sister Rios, a transgender woman. It was lovely to spend a day talking to her about the first years of inhabiting the world as the gender you are.

Listen to it here.

Finding NYC’s speed cameras

Few things bug me more as a reporter than being told I can’t have data. Particularly data about things government entities are doing. So when I was told that the location of New York City’s speed cameras was secret, I thought, hm. There’s got to be a way to figure out where they are, especially since the cameras are big boxes mounted on poles on public streets.

I had spent a lot of time looking at parking ticket data on the city’s data portal, and got well-acquainted with the various violation codes. One of which is for speed camera tickets. And each of those tickets had an address. Yay!

Using that data, we looked at where they were and how much each had brought in in revenue.

The city is collecting a lot of ticket revenue. The most prolific camera was on the Shore Parkway in Coney Island, right off the Belt Parkway. It issued more than $2.75 million in tickets last year — 55,000 of them, at $50 a pop. That’s 100 times the tickets officers in that area’s 60th precinct wrote by hand.

The three top-ticketing cameras were all just off major roadways: the Long Island Expressway, the Belt Parkway and the Staten Island Expressway. All were in places where pedestrians don’t cross, because there’s nothing to cross to. The roads have fences on one side, blocking off the highways.

We also noticed, though, that where the cameras were, speeding went down.

If the goal is getting people to slow down, the cameras seem to be working. According to WNYC’s analysis, the number of speeding tickets issued by each camera fell steadily over time.

Crashes dropped, too. In areas where we located installed cameras, there were 13 percent fewer collisions from September through December last year, compared to the same period in 2013.


What a year of reporting on traffic death meant for us reporters

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I spent most of 2014 focusing on traffic deaths in New York City. We created a database of all the deaths, and did a huge amount of work cleaning data, reconciling figures from different sources, reporting on policy shifts, and tracking down family members whose loved ones had been killed.

That last part – talking to families – was hard for all of us. But it mattered. So many of the traffic deaths went unreported, or were a single-day blip. We wanted to communicate the loss on an individual level, and what it means for our city to lose more than 200 people a year.

My colleagues at WNYC and I, on Data News and the transportation team, profiled as many of those people as we could. We also wrote about how the reporting affected us. For me, it made me incredibly paranoid as a pedestrian and a cyclist. My kid wears a safety vest when he rides his scooter. I never look at my phone in the street. I never wear headphones when I bike. And I don’t take it for granted when my loved ones come home safe at the end of a day.

When traffic deaths go unreported

Reporters on the NYPD press list get an email every time someone is killed in a traffic crash. Or at least we’re supposed to. My colleague Kate Hinds and I noticed that there were more deaths being reported in monthly summary stats than there were emails – some deaths weren’t being mentioned to the press. Almost a quarter of all deaths were going unreported, we discovered.

One of those was a hit-and-run near 23rd street. We found out about it because we called the NYPD, and asked for any details they had about a fatality listed in that area. The death was in the city’s online data portal, but that was all we knew.

That call sent us chasing the story of a man the NYPD named as Douglas Magrullo. But as it turned out, that wasn’t really his name. He was Douglas Matrullo, a natty dresser who grew up in SoHo in the fifties, got into drugs, and at the time of his death, was trying to get onto the straight and narrow.

After our story in December 2014, we noticed a marked uptick in notifications about traffic deaths – even deaths where the person didn’t die at the scene, a common theme in the unreported fatalities.

After an hour of discussing his cousin’s death, Richard Matrullo shook his head. “I mean, maybe because of the type of life he led, they just thought he was a nobody,” Richard said of the police. “They brushed it under the rug, it’s the only thing I can assume. But it ain’t right.”