ProPublica and The New York Daily News Monday won the Pulitzer Prize for public service, honoring their joint investigation on abuses in the New York City Police Department’s enforcement of the nuisance abatement law. The award is the fourth Pulitzer Prize for ProPublica and the 11th for the Daily News.
The series of articles by Sarah Ryley detailed a little-known NYPD practice — lawsuits that allow police to ban people from their homes or businesses, without due process, under claims that they are being used for illegal purposes. The measure was initially conceived to push out the sex industry from Times Square.
In her initial analysis Ryley spotted the alarming trend of residents who were not convicted of crimes, and who were even cleared of their charges, but removed from their homes anyway. The cases, roughly 1,000 in New York City each year, happened almost exclusively in communities of color. Then a data projects editor and investigative reporter at the New York Daily News, Ryley had been looking into nuisance abatement laws for more than a year, while juggling other responsibilities. To allow for the kind of long-term, in-depth reporting and data work that the story demanded, Ryley joined forces with ProPublica.
ProPublica provided three researchers who helped perform the time-consuming work of going through every nuisance abatement case filed in the previous year and a half — 1,162 in total — tracking every major step of the process, cross-referencing hundreds of cases with parallel proceedings in criminal court and the State Liquor Authority, and entering the details into spreadsheets. A ProPublica photographer, fluent in Spanish, assisted with the project’s extensive fieldwork — not only documenting the faces of families and business owners targeted by nuisance abatement actions, but also helping interview victims in largely Spanish-speaking communities such as the South Bronx and East Harlem. ProPublica editors worked with Ryley to develop and structure the pieces, which were the first long-form stories of her journalism career.
After exposing the NYPD’s startling abuses with irrefutable data, the investigation led to important results. Weeks after the first story’s publication, the NYPD imposed new procedural safeguards, and the number of nuisance abatement actions dropped significantly.
The findings shocked even veteran city politicians, many of whom said they were unaware that the nuisance abatement law granted such powers. Citing Ryley’s reporting, the New York City Council passed a package of 13 bills in 2017 that made sweeping reforms to the way the NYPD can carry out nuisance abatement actions, including the virtual elimination of one of the most controversial aspects of the law: the city’s ability to close locations without warning, pending a resolution to the case. Enacted in March, the new laws carve out exceptions only for cases involving prostitution, certain building code violations and businesses that pose a significant risk of physical harm to the public. The reforms mark the most sweeping changes to the nuisance abatement law since it was enacted in the 1970s, and the only changes to add protections for the accused rather than expanding enforcement powers.
The Pulitzer Prize for public service is widely considered the highest honor in American journalism. This is the first time since 1933 that the sole focus of the public service prize has been on coverage of New York City.
“The reporting partnership behind this series reflects the type of collaboration that ProPublica had in mind when our newsroom launched nine years ago,” said Robin Fields, managing editor of ProPublica. “By adding capacity to Sarah’s extraordinary expertise as a city reporter through research, editorial guidance and multimedia components, we sought to shine a brighter light on the abuses she had uncovered and maximize the potential for impact. We are proud the series was recognized for this prestigious award, in addition to being a force for change.”
“The nuisance abatement series is the most important journalism we undertook during my time as editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News,” said Jim Rich, who championed and shepherded the project while at the Daily News. “It gave voice to those suffering heartless injustice at the hands of a broken public policy. I am incredibly proud of Sarah and all the editors at ProPublica and the Daily News who worked so hard on this vital project.”
“The investigation into the workings of the nuisance abasement law is a stellar example of the media fulfilling its duty to monitor fairness in the legal system,” said Arthur Browne, editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News. “Designed as a tool for closing establishments rife with criminality, the statute vests police and other officials with extraordinary powers — powers they misapplied against regular citizens without check by an effective judiciary. Thanks to this investigation, New York now sees how an extremely muscular law, combined with aggressive policing, combined with a lack of counsel, combined with lax judges produced damaging miscarriages of justice.”
ProPublica was also a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting, for Machine Bias, a groundbreaking series on the hidden power of computer-driven algorithms. Exploring how algorithms can produce unfair differences, from the advertisements we see to decisions made in the criminal justice system, the series was ProPublica’s seventh Pulitzer finalist.
ProPublica reporters received Pulitzer Prizes for explanatory reporting in 2016, national reporting in 2011, and investigative reporting in 2010, in addition to being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2016 and a finalist for public service in 2010.