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Times’ Tampa police investigation took unusual turns

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Meridian Apartments on N 50th St. in Tampa is one of about 100 apartment complexes that participated in Tampa Police Department's Crime-Free Multi Housing program.
Meridian Apartments on N 50th St. in Tampa is one of about 100 apartment complexes that participated in Tampa Police Department's Crime-Free Multi Housing program. [ CHRISTOPHER O'DONNELL | Times ]
Published Oct. 3

The Tampa Bay Times invests a lot of time and talent into exposing important civic matters through investigative journalism. But a project we published last month about the Tampa Police Department, Arrests and evictions, was different in a couple of ways.

First, it took four years to complete, in part because it was started by one reporter and finished by two others, which we noted in the story. Second, the investigation prompted change by city officials even before it appeared on our front page. I’ll explain how that happened.

Times reporter Nathaniel Lash first approached the Tampa police in 2017 about its Crime-Free Multi Housing program. Aimed at reducing gang and drug crime in apartment complexes, the program had officers notify landlords of tenant arrests and encouraged landlords to evict those who were reported.

Lash requested copies of police notices and their offender database — all public documents — trying to determine who had been reported, on what charges and what had happened to them. He also interviewed tenants, housing experts and police officials.

But in 2018, Lash left the Times for a new job.

Times reporter Chris O’Donnell, who was covering vulnerable communities at the time, tried to pick up on Lash’s reporting in late 2019, but other work got in the way. In 2020, he got back on the story and joined forces with data reporter Ian Hodgson.

Ultimately, they analyzed eight years of police data, pulled more than a thousand court records and cross-matched apartment complex locations with census data to see if police were targeting complexes in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. They also consulted with Lash and re-interviewed landlords, police and city officials, tenants and lawyers.

In the meantime, we reassigned O’Donnell and Hodgson to one of our most important beats — health and medicine — smack in the middle of a COVID surge. For months, they reworked drafts of the police investigation in between stories about caseloads and struggling hospitals.

The investigation’s findings were stark, documenting hundreds of tenants being displaced, some over minor issues or charges that were later dropped. And 90 percent of those reported to landlords were Black tenants.

On Wednesday, Sept. 15, we posted the story at tampabay.com. We routinely post our biggest stories on a weekday morning — when we have the largest online audiences — before they run in the Sunday paper.

By the next day, civil rights groups and local politicians had asked Tampa Mayor Jane Castor to suspend or scrap the Crime-Free program, citing our investigation. We posted a story about that online.

Then on Saturday, Castor announced she was reforming the program. We scrambled to post a story online and also ran it in the Sunday paper alongside the pages-long investigation, which print readers were seeing for the first time.

It’s the way our business works these days. Sometimes, our own news overtakes us as we try to serve readers wherever they prefer to read us.

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But keep reading, whether in print or online. Community leaders are still discussing and reacting to this important investigation.

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