ST. PETERSBURG — There were many allegations in the 427-page lawsuit against the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, but one in particular stood out to Tampa Bay Times investigative reporters Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi.
A former deputy said he had been ordered to harass citizens, to the point that they might want to move out of the county.
The reporters were soon combing police reports and knocking on doors. “We really wanted to learn more,” McGrory said.
As is often the case, that’s how the work began.
McGrory and Bedi have now been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting for the resulting series exposing a Sheriff’s Office initiative that used computer modeling to identify people believed to be future crime suspects. About 1,000 people were monitored under the program, including children.
The award is the 13th Pulitzer Prize won by the Times. It marks the third instance when the Times has won the Pulitzer Prize in the Local Reporting category, the only American news organization to do so since it was introduced 15 years ago.
“What Kathleen and Neil unearthed in Pasco County has had a profound impact on the community,” said Mark Katches, Times executive editor. “This is what the best investigative journalism can do and why it is so essential.”
The Pulitzer Prizes in journalism, books, drama and music were announced virtually at Columbia University in New York on Friday.
“We aim to keep our standards high and our focus on Tampa Bay,” said Paul Tash, Times chairman and CEO. “It’s wonderful affirmation when our efforts are recognized with the prize that sets the gold standard for journalism.”
McGrory and Bedi found that Pasco County residents who got caught in the agency’s sights were placed on a list as potential criminals and subjected to harassment, often having deputies show up at odd hours. More than 12,500 times, the reporters found, deputies checked on the people that a departmental algorithm identified as targets. Those targeted were written up for missing mailbox numbers or overgrown grass. One of the goals of the program was to make those who made it onto the agency’s list move away, former deputies said.
The reporters crisscrossed Pasco County beginning in the early mornings, logging hundreds of miles to connect with those subject to the intense policing.
“All of them said that they felt like they were being harassed,” McGrory said. “But they felt like they were powerless. There was no one for them to turn to because the sheriff is so powerful in Pasco County.”
It took courage for residents to share their experiences, McGrory and Bedi said.
“It’s a scary thing to share your story with the public,” Bedi said. “This just acknowledges how important these people’s stories were.”
The team listened to the livestream announcement with some colleagues and loved ones at McGrory’s house Friday. The reporters stood in the center of the living room with McGrory’s beagle, Susan, perched at their hips. A cheer went up as the Times was called, and the duo traded hugs with Katches and Tash.
McGrory and Bedi previously were finalists for the Pulitzer two years ago after publishing stories about surgical mistakes that led to deaths and crippling outcomes at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. They worked together for four years.
“We push each other to be better,” Bedi said. “It’s made doing investigative reporting a lot easier.”
McGrory said Bedi’s background in computer science was crucial to understanding the algorithm central to the stories.
The pair began reporting in the second half of 2019. In the middle of that process, the country saw new scrutiny for police practices after an officer killed George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“This is obviously not the same thing as what happened to George Floyd, but what we were seeing in Pasco was an example of how abuses could become routine,” McGrory said.
The recognition for the series, titled Targeted, marks the second time the Times has won journalism’s top prize for investigations into the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. In 1985, reporters Lucy Morgan and Jack Reed were honored in the Investigative Reporting category for their examination of corrupt practices under Sheriff John Short.
McGrory is now the deputy editor for investigations at the Times. Bedi moved to Washington, D.C., as a reporter for ProPublica. The series was edited by Adam Playford, who has joined the New York Times. Other contributors to the project included video producer Jennifer Glenfield, photojournalist Douglas R. Clifford, designer Sean Kristoff-Jones and data journalist Connie Humburg.
Targeted has won a number of other national awards, including “Best in Show” in the National Headliner competition; the Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Journalism, administered by Harvard University; and the Scripps Howard Award for excellence in local or regional investigative reporting.
The Times was previously recognized in the Local Reporting category in 2016 for its series Failure Factories, about struggling Pinellas County schools, and in 2014 for revealing squalid conditions for Tampa’s homeless population. Both those efforts led to reforms.
Tampa Bay Times Pulitzer Prize list
2021: Local Reporting – Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi.
2016: Local Reporting – Michael LaForgia, Cara Fitzpatrick and Lisa Gartner.
2016: Investigative Reporting – Leonora LaPeter Anton and Anthony Cormier of the Times and Michael Braga of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
2014: Local Reporting – Will Hobson and Michael LaForgia.
2013: Editorial Writing – Tim Nickens and Dan Ruth.
2009: National Reporting – Staff for PolitiFact.com.
2009: Feature Writing – Lane DeGregory.
1998: Feature Writing – Thomas French.
1995: Editorial Writing – Jeffrey Good.
1991: Feature Writing – Sheryl James.
1985: Investigative Reporting – Lucy Morgan and Jack Reed.
1980: National Reporting – Bette Orsini and Charles Stafford.
1964: Public Service – St. Petersburg Times
Newsrooms that have won a Pulitzer Prize in the Local Reporting category
(The category was introduced in 2007)
Tampa Bay Times: 3
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 2
Miami Herald: 1
Baltimore Sun: 1
Star Tribune (Minneapolis): 1
Salt Lake Tribune: 1
The Advocate (Baton Rouge, La.): 1
Cincinnati Enquirer: 1
The Patriot News (Harrisburg, Pa..): 1
Detroit Free Press: 1
East Valley Tribune (Mesa, Ariz.): 1
Daily Breeze (Torrance, Calif.): 1
Chicago Sun-Times: 1