The San Francisco Chronicle went to press Sunday with a big front-page series detailing the results of its years-long investigation into use of excessive force by some city police officers (the paper’s online site, SFGate.com, has created a special site for the stories). The paper says it took years to secure thousands of documents using the state’s Public Records Act . “The newspaper used these documents to do something the Police Department has never done,” the Chronicle says. “It created a computerized database capable of providing a profile of the use-of-force patterns of individual officers.” The paper reports it conducted hundreds of interviews with cops, city officials, abuse victims, and experts in police practices.
The findings are devastating: The Chron says San Francisco officers rack up more excessive-force complaints than those in Oakland, San Jose, San Diego, and Seattle combined. The Chron stories detail example after harrowing example of officers brutalizing citizens innocuously going about their day-to-day business. The articles suggest that in most cases, attempts to rein in the habitual batterers on the force are ineffectual at best and that some of the worst offenders have gotten promotions and assigned to train rookies.
The stories (today is day three of the series) look like they add up to an excellent piece of public-service journalism. There’s a Pulitzer Prize for that. But the Chron didn’t stop there.
In Sunday’s launch of the series, the paper published a 4,100-word profile of one of the department’s bad actors, a Sergeant John Haggett. Google him, and you’ll find that he’s got the special, if not unique, distinction of having been cited for brutality in a 1998 Human Rights Watch report that relies heavily on reporting by the local papers. The profile recounts Haggett’s history of unprovoked violence against suspects going back to the late 1980s, including shooting and killing an unarmed man after a chase through downtown traffic and two beatings that led to separate three-month suspensions.
Sergeant Haggett sounds like a lovely man, and two of the three reporters with bylines on the Sunday piece should know: Bill Wallace and Susan Sward wrote a 1,500-word piece on him in October 1996. That story is one of the sources for the Human Rights Watch report. Several of the incidents they recounted then were repeated nearly verbatim Sunday, supplemented by several more episodes of Haggett’s ugly behavior and the fair-and-balanced mention of facts that might temper the impression he’s a monster: He won a departmental award for valor in the line of duty and once released a teen hold-up suspect so he could attend his high school graduation.
Given the Chron’s history with Haggett and the seriousness of the charges it’s printing, then, it’s just short of incredible that the picture the paper ran to introduce this villain to the world — small on page one, splashed across six columns on an inside page — wasn’t of Haggett at all. It’s just an anonymous puffy guy in a jacket with a big collar; according to some, such as the head of the police union, the anonymous puffy guy bears little resemblance to Haggett.
The Chronicle’s response? Yes, we were wrong. The paper on Tuesday mentioned the mistake in its story on the chief’s reaction and runs a weak “we regret the error” correction. But it doesn’t explain how the picture of the unknown man wound up so prominently displayed on its pages.
Meantime, the paper is trying to fend off San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, who is upset that the Chronicle reported he did not make himself available for interviews on the excessive-force issue. The paper’s response is that a reporter emailed nine interview requests over three weeks and that Newsom’s spokesman, while saying the mayor would be available, never nailed down a time for the talk to happen. The paper suggests without coming out and saying so that its efforts to get an interview were reasonable enough and that it did what any reasonable party might do in such a situation and published without the mayor’s comments.
What I’d suggest the Chron isn’t getting is that despite the years of reporting it says it has done, the sloppiness of its presentation has cost it the presumption of credibility. The police chief understands that and is trying to use the picture mistake to discredit the rest of the paper’s reporting.
All this is happening in a sort of crisis context for daily newspapers. They are less trusted than they have been — perhaps ever been — and a manifestly imperfect but still potent alternate news channel has appeared online, just waiting to pick apart mistakes like this. It’s no longer enough for the Chronicle and other papers to hunker down, issue an ephemeral acknowledgment of error and an empty statement of regret — like that’s a public service — and move on as if nothing happened.
Critical readers want and deserve to know how the papers’ internal processes work and why mistakes like the non-Haggett picture are made. In this case, the Chron needs to show that its error was exceptional and that its efforts to get high-level official comment were reasonable. That means a full explanation of the chain of events that led to the wrong picture being run, complete with an account of the key people who signed off on it and what they have to say about the process. The disagreement over the mayor’s interview might be clarified by publishing the whole email exchange between the paper and the mayor’s office so that readers can see who asked and who promised what. (For extra credit, the paper could make a version of its excessive-force database available online — it is based on public information, after all — so that readers could have a chance to explore the issue more deeply.)
At the end of having to explain itself, the paper might even learn something about itself that will save it from the same mistakes next time.