Sun Sentinel reporter Sally Kestin has made a career of looking at a news event and showing readers meaningful patterns.
In 2013, Kestin's investigation of speeding police in South Florida earned her paper the public service Pulitzer, widely regarded as the most prestigious honor bestowed by the Pulitzer board.
Kestin credits her Medill training for the journalistic mindset that helped her figure out how to document the problem.
“I look for the bigger picture in any news event, and I think I learned that at NU,” she said. “Every editor I've had for 26 years has said Northwestern graduates are the best. We learn not just the basics of reporting, but also the critical thinking skills that take a story to the next level.”
Kestin and her colleague, John Maines, used an innovative database journalism technique to reveal that nearly 800 officers were regularly driving 90 to 120 mph on Florida highways, endangering other drivers, pedestrians and themselves. Once Kestin and Maines reported the widespread nature of the problem, police agencies took action, punishing speeding cops and developing systems to monitor police driving. A follow-up story showed that officers slowed down dramatically – an 84 percent drop in high-speed incidents compared to the same timeframe one year earlier.
Speeding police officers had been an obvious problem to anybody living in South Florida, Kestin said, but the problem really came to a head when a Florida State Trooper pulled over a Miami police officer for driving nearly 120 mph. The speeding officer, Fausto Lopez, was on his way to an off-duty security job. The arrest was caught on the trooper’s dash-mounted video camera and included audio of Lopez’s disbelief at being arrested.
“We knew this guy wasn’t the only one who was speeding excessively,” Kestin said. “This story really outraged the public, and we knew this was going on in a larger way.
The investigation was not without a few hang-ups. Kestin first bought a radar gun to see if she and colleagues could use it to document the speeding police officers.
Sitting on a rain-soaked overpass, Kestin used to use the radar gun what she thought were speeding cars. The problem? It was hard to tell if a speeding car was a police car until it was right underneath the radar gun.
So she scrapped that plan.
Then she hit on the idea of using data from toll readers assigned to police cars. The Florida open-road toll system, called SunPass, doesn’t charge police agencies toll fees, but it does keep data on each car that passes through.
Kestin and Maines’ request for the data was initially rejected by state transportation officials, but when the agency was unable to cite the legal provision to keep the records private, Kestin and Maines took possession of a database with more than 1 million toll transactions.
The next problem? The toll data alone didn’t indicate the officers’ speeds. The exact distances between toll plazas were needed, so Kestin and Maines got in their cars and used a Garmin GPS device to clock mileages between the plazas. Maines then used Excel to calculate the officer’s speeds.
"Early on we knew we had a great story because the scope of what we found was huge,” Kestin said.
Kestin reported and wrote five stories that ran in the Sun Sentinel over the course of three days. She interviewed families whose loved ones were seriously injured or killed by speeding cops and featured the stories of police officers who were killed in high-speed accidents while on routine patrol. Her stories also highlighted the anger of those families who saw police breaking the laws they were sworn to uphold receiving little or no punishment for injuring or killing innocent people.
As part of her reporting, Kestin delivered printouts of the results to each police department. Police leaders could not defend the officers’ actions. All the agencies opened investigations.
"One of the powerful results of what we did is we showed how widespread this was. It was impossible for the police agencies to ignore," Kestin said.
The paper also posted a database of speeding cops, video stories which complemented the printed ones and a photo gallery of speeding cops and their victims. Kestin also wrote four follow-up stories about the punishments meted out to speeding cops and a follow-up database story showing the dramatic change in police driving habits.
"It really was a serious community danger. People had died as a result of this. It took the bright light of what we found to stop what was a serious and dangerous problem," Kestin said.
Kestin had been a Pulitzer finalist before, but had never won. The Sun Sentinel had been a finalist 13 times, but had never won. The paper submitted the work in both the investigative and public service categories, and Kestin heard a tip the Sunday before the awards were to be announced on Monday that good news might be coming her way. But still, she knew the public service award usually goes to coverage of natural disasters or major news events where a newsroom comes together for team coverage. The Sun Sentinel newsroom gathered to watch the live telecast. The public service award was the first one announced. “He didn't even get the full name of the newspaper out. It was just South Florida Sun Sent-, and then newsroom exploded,” Kestin said. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think we'd win the gold medal for public service,” she said. Kestin relished the chance to celebrate with the other Pulitzer winners at the awards banquet in May.
The editor of the Sun Sentinel, Howard Saltz, is proud of the innovative reporting technique used by his reporters that resulted in indisputable evidence of police speeding and the reporters’ courage in writing about officers who had already shown willingness to break the rules.
“The methodology is absolutely perfect, Saltz said. “No one could, and no one did question the accuracy of the numbers.”
The best result, Saltz said, was the change in police driving habits.
“(The series) had a very positive impact on the community. It wasn't just interesting. It wasn't just important but non-actionable. It made the roads safer. That's going to sound like hyperbole, but it’s not. Six months after the story was originally reported, 85 percent of the shenanigans that had originally been reported had disappeared. The roads are safer.”
Perhaps the best testament to the importance of the series comes from Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa, who disciplined dozens of officers and fired the worst offender on his force.
He told the paper for an article published in June, "What the Sun Sentinel has done is a service to all police agencies because if they did not know they had a speeding problem, now they do,'' Orosa said.