DETROIT, MI — Call it slow-burn impact reporting.
Two years ago, an investigative reporter named Isaiah Thompson exposed the massive and troubling scale of “civil asset forfeiture” in Philadelphia—that is, how law enforcement exploited its authority to seize cash and personal property suspected to be connected to a crime. The idea is to take ill-gotten gains from drug dealers or other criminals, but Thompson showed that Philly authorities routinely claimed property in cases where the owners were not convicted—and in some instances, not even charged. Seized assets amounted to $6 million a year for the city, underwriting the police department and prosecutor’s office, while the system was stacked against people who sought to recover their property. In a 2012 article for Philadelphia City Paper, the local alt-weekly, and a 2013 follow-up for ProPublica, Thompson gathered and analyzed data to show how an under-the-radar nationwide phenomenon played out, to dramatic and sometimes devastating effect, in his city.
After the stories came out, Thompson went on a few local radio shows. He had a few meaningful conversations. And then… nothing. Larger local news outlets in Philadelphia didn’t pick up the story, and the city never felt pressured to respond. The story disappeared.
Until now. In August, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm, joined with a local firm to file a federal class-action lawsuit accusing the city of Philadelphia, the police department, and the district attorney of “seizing and sealing” personal property in violation of constitutional rights. Three named plaintiffs are Philadelphia residents whose houses were seized. Thompson’s reporting is frequently cited in the 21-page document: His work is sourced in five of the eight footnotes and listed in the table of authorities.
While the Institute for Justice has tracked civil forfeiture nationally for years, “we were not aware of how bad it was in Philadelphia until Isaiah brought it to our attention,” said Darpana Sheth, an IJ attorney.
“It shows there’s no substitute for true reporting,” said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney with IJ. “He’s not just reading the law and talking to a couple people. He went to the courtroom over and over and over, and really explored what happened.”
The lawsuit proved to be a rousing alarm bell. Larger local outlets like the Philadelphia Daily News, Philadelphia Inquirer, and WHYY’s Newsworks are now following the city’s civil forfeiture story with greater urgency. Meanwhile, the issue has blown up nationally: John Oliver did a memorable explainer for his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, and The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, CNN, and many others have picked up on the story, often citing IJ’s pushback against Philly’s civil forfeiture “machine.”
Tracing it back to the reporter who first grabbed the story in Philadelphia offers a heartening look at how local reporting can—in time—trickle into the national news and lead to substantive on-the-ground action.
“I’ve basically always been a local reporter,” Thompson said. “I love local reporting. I believe in local reporting. I’ve felt a huge privilege working for alt-weeklies, where I get to really write about the city I lived in, and write for people who live around me.”
Thompson, of course, wasn’t the first reporter to raise questions about civil asset forfeiture. In 1993, the Orlando Sentinel won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on police officers who seized $8 million from citizens driving on I-95, nearly all of them black or Hispanic. The Kansas City Star published an acclaimed series about seven years later. In 2009, The Detroit News published a two-part series on depleted public offices profiting from seized personal property. Thompson’s own reporting cites earlier work by The Wall Street Journal. And last year, Sarah Stillman published the richly reported “Taken” in The New Yorker, an expansive look at seizures around the country, including in Philadelphia. Stillman and Thompson connected in the course of their reporting, when they realized they had some sources in common. “I think his work is wonderful,” Stillman said.
Thompson first found his niche as an investigative reporter at the Miami New Times, another alt-weekly, in 2007. Three weeks into his gig as a cub reporter, he stumbled on his first local story with much bigger implications.
“I came upon these guys living under a bridge and found out they were sex offenders who claimed they’d been court-ordered to live here,” Thompson said. He dug into it and found out the claim was, effectively, true. His reporting became a national story, eventually featured on This American Life. The ACLU has filed two lawsuits challenging local policies, including one in October 2014.
Civil forfeiture appeared on Thompson’s radar when, while working at City Paper, he got a tip about about a man who had had money seized by police, with no arraignment or arrest. Most stories about civil forfeiture abuse feature one or two anecdotes like this, with a bit of background about the process. But Thompson was interested in taking it further. “I saw the size of this, and it was something I didn’t see anywhere else,” he said. “It was like a factory these guys are operating. … I wanted to not tell one story, but to figure out the entire system.”
The first question, then, was how often incidents like this happen. He began collecting data—“at first, kind of crude data”—and determined that there was one courtroom in Philadelphia where civil forfeiture cases were handled. Thompson could take out the court listing each day to find other cases. With some “real basic math,” he could see that “there must be hundreds of these.”
To investigate further, Thompson applied for and received a $4,000 grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.* He asked the courts for forfeiture documents. “They wanted an outlandish sum of money,” he said, “but I paid it, and found thousands and thousands of cases every year.”
It took a long time to figure out the details of the huge data set—“it was like a riddle,” Thompson said. Connecting civil forfeiture records to corresponding criminal records was tedious work, which involved pulling paper files at the court and decoding handwritten annotations. Thompson spent some of his grant money to hire an intern, who scanned documents and helped to compile information. In total, he spent a better part of a year on the story. “I will definitely admit I fell into a trap many investigative reporters do, which is that you always want to keep going,” he said. There were always just a few more questions to answer.
Eventually, he split the story into two parts, to give it more breathing room. The first piece, in City Paper, focused on cash seizures; the second, in ProPublica, examined the DA’s seizure of houses. Together, they present a case that civil forfeiture wasn’t just a quirk of recent history—perhaps a rogue DA or police unit—but that it is a systemic use, and often abuse, of power.
Thompson left City Paper about two years ago. He joined the online journalism start-up AxisPhilly, and after that folded, he became a freelancer. He recently published another story for ProPublica about the risks in transportation of crude oil. For City Paper last month, he investigated the connection between the city’s notorious narcotics cops and civil forfeiture. “I was pretty sure they seized a lot of property, including peoples’ houses, and now the DA is overturning cases—but are they returning property?” Thompson asked. “How can you return a house you already auctioned off?”
As he navigates his journalism career as a freelancer in a city where the major journalism institutions are shaking, Thompson said it’s time to re-think local reporting. He called for a redistribution of industry resources that empowers smaller-scale investigative journalism.
“We probably never lived in a better time for investigative reporting nationally,” he said, “but because not a lot of resources are there for local investigative reporting almost anywhere, we don’t have nearly as many people as we need to poke into the local city council, whether its Philadelphia or St. Louis or wherever.”
The danger is local news that’s too reactive, following information provided by someone else. “You need people digging beyond what is already available and finding what is not available,” Thompson said. “I get that it’s hard for newspapers, who need to cover the news, but we also need to empower reporters to find their own news and push the boundaries of what is publicly available.”
*Correction: This sentence originally misstated the value of the FIJ grant.