On deadline: Why organizing beats is just as important as large investigations

Laura AmicoThis is one of a series of blog posts from the first ONA class of MJ Bear Fellows describing their experiences and sharing their knowledge with the community. Fellow Laura Amico, along with her husband, Chris, is the founder and editor of Homicide Watch D.C. in Washington, D.C., a website that covers every homicide in the nation’s capital, and includes news, obituaries, profiles, court documents and memorials.

On the afternoon of Dec. 30, I was sitting in D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) command center with more than a dozen other journalists waiting for Chief Cathy Lanier and Mayor Vincent Gray to arrive.

They had called the New Year’s Eve press conference to talk about the year in crime and policing, and, in part, to talk about MPD’s incredible 94 percent homicide case closure in 2011. It’s a good thing the closure rate was listed in the press packet that was handed out; if it hadn’t been, I would have thought that I misheard the number.

I knew that nowhere near 94 percent of 2011′s homicides listed in the Homicide Watch database were closed. I pulled up the site and did a quick check to make sure. According to our data, 61 of 108 homicides — or 56 percent — had been closed with an arrest.

I checked with Lanier later that afternoon and learned that the case-closure arithmetic MPD was using included the closures of homicides from previous years in the calculation of the 2011 calendar year’s closure rate. I called sources, double checked that I understood the math, and spoke with them about what they thought about how the number was calculated.

About three hours after the press conference wrapped up, I had a story published in our Year in Review package explaining the much-repeated case closure rate.

This weekend, an investigations team at the Washington Post published an excellent package following up on Homicide Watch D.C.’s reporting.

Cheryl Thompson wrote:

The closure rate [Lanier] presents for the District is 154 percent higher than Boston’s and at least 104 percent higher than Baltimore’s, and it gives residents reason to believe that D.C. police have been remarkably successful at solving homicide cases under her watch.

But an examination of District homicides found that the department’s closure rate is a statistical mishmash that makes things seem much better than they are. The District had 108 homicides last year, police records show. A 94 percent closure rate would mean that detectives solved 102 of them. But only 62 were solved as of year’s end, for a true closure rate of 57 percent, according to records reviewed by The Post.

D.C. police achieved the high closure rate last year by including about 40 cases from other years that were closed in 2011.

The cases date from 1989, records show. The pattern was first reported by a local Web site, homicidewatch.org, in December.

Be sure to check out the excellent graphics the Post team created to go with the story.

Thompson’s story hits all the right notes: It’s a meaningful follow, advances the story and it credits an outside outlet for getting the news first.

I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes from here, but it’s worth taking a moment to point out why Homicide Watch D.C. had the story on Dec. 30: The structure of the Homicide Watch database meant that I knew the numbers before I went to the press conference, and that when the numbers didn’t sound right I was able to check them right away. I didn’t have to make an official request or, heaven forbid, file a FOIA. Sure, it helped that I knew which sources to call at 5 p.m. on Dec. 30, but I also knew exactly what to ask them.

Good reporting frequently comes out of thorough investigations; the Post’s story is an excellent example of this. But good reporting happens more regularly and more quickly when information is organized from the start and a beat is built around a clear organizing principle. Homicide Watch’s deadline reporting of the story was a good example.

Slide photo is by Roger H. Goun via Flickr and licensed under Creative Commons.