Jason Szep on Reuters investigative series on Tasers
In a five-part investigation called Shock Tactics, Reuters gave an inside look at the Taser, the weapon that has transformed American policing. The investigation revealed that more than 1,000 people in the U.S. have died after police stunned them with Tasers; how the public pays much of the liability bill; the overstated claims about the company’s scientific studies and more. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight, U.S. National Affairs Editor Jason Szep offers a look at the reporting behind the series.
Q: How did the team get started on this story?
A: In 2015, during the summer of protests in Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities, we started looking at Tasers and how police use them. After talking to a number of people, we faced two fundamental questions: are Tasers saving lives or are the weapons used mostly on people who pose no lethal threat?
As we examined death after death, and lawsuit after lawsuit, digging through thousands of pages of court filings and talking to families of those killed and the police officers who used them, it became clear that Tasers often were not taking the place of guns. Police were often using them as a quick way to get someone – usually unarmed and often in a mental health crisis – to comply with their commands. Cities were often the only ones left standing in court when things went wrong. Over the next year and a half, we explored this issue further and a few factors gnawed at us. One is that 90 percent of the 1,005 fatalities we documented involved people who were unarmed. Another is that Taser says the weapon has never led to a cardiac death and that only 24 people have ever died in a confrontation involving a Taser – all from secondary injuries such as falls or fires. There were lots of factors in every death we documented. They usually involved other types of force, like baton strikes and choke holds. We wanted to explore, however, whether more people were dying as a result of these weapons than the company is acknowledging.
Q: What types of reporting/sourcing have we used in reporting these stories?
A: There were a few different aspects to the reporting. One was building up a unique and comprehensive data set on every death involving tasers and every wrongful death lawsuit involving the weapon, and then analyzing the allegations and the circumstances around each death. This involved a significant amount of data work. For instance, the team examined thousands of lawsuits and court records in legal databases such as Westlaw, Lexis and Pacer to search for Taser-related wrongful death suits, a time-consuming and painstaking process. We also reviewed hundreds of media accounts of deaths dating back to the 1990s, trying to determine if there was an associated lawsuit buried in a state or federal court. We examined other databases of deaths involving Tasers, often filing public records requests to confirm the details. We requested more than a thousand autopsies. And for every lawsuit, autopsy, media account, court record or police report on a death involving Tasers, we analyzed the circumstances. Was the person armed? Were there allegations that they were mentally ill or under the influence of drugs or alcohol? Where on their body did they get stunned? How many times? Was there other force involved? These were just a few of the questions we asked for each death. This created a rich set of data that had to be double and triple checked - also a very time-consuming process.
But the data was just one part of the reporting. We also conducted hundreds of interviews with lawyers, family members of people who died in incidents involving Tasers, law enforcement officials, scientists and others to build compelling narratives. In total, the team filed hundreds of public records requests around the country and conducted other open-source research to build on the information in the database.
Q: What was the hardest part about the reporting?
A: One challenge was building up our data and making sure we presented all sides to often complex and nuanced issues. It was also often difficult to anticipate what we wanted to get from our data so we would collect the right info from the start. Having to go back and collect more data on cases we already examined was one of the more challenging aspects to the project. And figuring out what we’ll need from the data set before you create it is a huge challenge.
Q: What makes you passionate about journalism?
A: At its best, journalism keeps the world honest, performing a critical public service by illuminating life-saving truths and holding the powerful to account. Personally, I like finding stories no one has told. I believe there are extraordinary untold stories are just about everywhere we look. It often takes determined scratching and probing to find them, but they are there.
Q: What is your job/beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A: I’m National Affairs Editor and run a team of reporters focused largely around short and long-term enterprise stories. When we do find a good story, and the interviews are conducted, I often feel a strong need to do justice to the people who confided in us or trusted us with their story. Doing that successfully can be very fulfilling.