Open Vallejo reporter Laurence Du Sault has won the 2022 James Madison Freedom of Information Award for her “tireless and meticulous” investigation into the Vallejo Police Department, the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists announced Thursday.
Published in partnership with the national newsroom ProPublica, Du Sault’s investigation represents the most comprehensive review of Vallejo police killings by a newsroom to date. Over the course of a year, Du Sault examined more than 15,000 pages of police, forensic, and court files related to the city’s 17 fatal police shootings since 2011, interviewed dozens of witnesses, and filed more than 50 public records requests. Open Vallejo also sued the city to obtain records the newsroom alleges were unlawfully being withheld.
Du Sault’s investigation found that more than a third of Vallejo’s recent police killings involved officers who were under investigation for a prior killing, allowing six officers to use deadly force before they were cleared. One officer made the same mistake twice, but officials only caught it after he had participated in two fatal shootings.
The errors, which were cataloged in a database built by Du Sault, included a failure to report some killings to the state department of justice, officers mishandling evidence, and detectives ignoring eyewitnesses who said they saw the killings. At times, the missteps delayed the internal probes, and as the cases dragged on, prosecutors, on multiple occasions, cleared officers before all the evidence in a case had been analyzed.
After publication, as they had in past controversies, city officials pledged change; as before, they did not deliver.
More than two years after the state attorney general launched an investigation over the “number and nature” of Vallejo’s police shootings, a subsequent analysis by Du Sault found that the department had implemented just two of 45 reforms endorsed by the California Department of Justice. Days before publication, Open Vallejo broke the news that the chief had quietly resigned.
With the California DOJ scheduled to leave Vallejo in June, Du Sault’s work shed crucial light on systemic and human failings that have long impeded reform in Vallejo, where police kill at a rate higher than all but two cities in the state.
The award honoring Du Sault marks Open Vallejo’s third James Madison Award since 2020, the same year the newsroom launched with a story revealing that Vallejo police officers bend the tips of their badges to mark fatal shootings.