Case Study

How The Philadelphia Inquirer held the city’s police department accountable

With public records requests and deep sourcing, The Inquirer changed police department practices by exposing how Philly police officers were taking advantage of a state law to get paid not to work.

By Joseph Lichterman

October 24, 2023

An illustration showing Philadelphia police officers

The findings of the 2022 Philadelphia Inquirer investigative report were striking: At a time of crisis for the city, a shockingly high number of police officers were taking advantage of a lucrative state disability benefit by claiming they were unable to work thanks to a diagnosis from  hand-picked union doctors. 

The Inquirer journalists reported in “MIA: Crisis in the Ranks” that as of 2021, 652 officers were deemed unable to work and were claiming benefits from the Pennsylvania Heart and Lung Act, which affords a full salary without any state or income taxes. That means that 11% of the city’s police force was missing, significantly higher than other cities like Chicago at 3.3% and Portland, Oregon at 1.9%, The Inquirer reported. 

Thanks to The Inquirer’s reporting, the practices are starting to change: In September, The Inquirer reported that the number of police officers on leave fell 46% from late 2021 to the summer of 2023, which meant that there were about 300 more police officers at work each week.

As of late summer, more than 200 officers were listed as being available to testify in court as they recovered from their injuries — an increase from just 64 in late 2021 — which indicates they could perform non-physical tasks while still recovering. 

“We need folks to do the job that they took an oath to do,” Interim Police Commissioner John Stanford told The Inquirer. He added that The Inquirer’s journalism “obviously made some people aware” of issues with the system. 

In an interview with The Journalist’s Resource at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Inquirer journalists Barbara Laker, David Gambacorta, and William Bender shared insights into their reporting process and offered tips and strategies for other investigative reporters. (The team’s original reporting for MIA: Crisis in the Ranks was named a finalist for the Shorenstein Center’s annual Goldsmith Award for Investigative Reporting.) 

“We hadn’t even spent very long digging into this before we found that this was known across city government to be a problem, for 20 years almost,” Gambacorta told Journalist’s Resource. “There was just this tendency to shrug and point to somebody else across different city agencies because nobody wanted maybe the heat of taking on something like this.”

Much of their reporting was based on records’ requests, and Bender recommended that journalists be as specific as they can with their freedom of information requests to public bodies.

“When you’re requesting the records, I would just stress that you’re not looking for personally identifiable medical information because that’s just kind of like set off all the alarm bells,” Bender told Journalist’s Resource. “Just focus on the fact that you want want numbers, not names, just to make sure that no one misunderstands your request.”

But records requests weren’t enough to report the story. Thanks to strong sourcing, The Inquirer team knew what documents to look into and was able to fill in gaps thanks to knowledgeable sources. 

The reporting process required immense patience as the city initially wouldn’t release the records the journalists requested. Once they identified officers who were out injured but still working, the journalists had to stake out their homes or businesses to confirm that they were actually working when they said they were too injured to work or be in court to testify. 

That persistence paid off. 

“Follow the string. Get as much information as you can get. Get obsessed with details,” Laker told Journalist’s Resource. “And just keep going. Don’t give up. Just keep digging and digging and digging.”

Illustration by Anton Klusener

Local News Solutions

The Lenfest Institute provides free tools and resources for local journalism leaders to develop sustainable strategies to serve their communities.

Find Your News Solution
news solution pattern