Alum Brian Howey (’22) wins George Polk Award for Justice Reporting

February 19, 2024

Berkeley Journalism alum Brian Howey (’22) has won a 2023 George Polk Award for Justice Reporting for his exposé in the Los Angeles Times and podcast on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting about a deceptive practice used by police when interviewing family members of people killed by police officers. 

The prestigious award for investigative journalism is named for George Polk, a CBS correspondent who was murdered in 1948 while covering the Greek civil war. The latest winners were selected from 497 submissions. 

Howey was a student in Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting program, where he developed the story as part of Professor David Barstow’s second-year seminar. He is a freelance reporter based in Oakland whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, WIRED, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. 

The IRP’s Aysha Pettigrew talked with Howey about his award-winning story.

Q. What drew you to Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program? 

A. The main purpose for joining the J-School was to pursue a career in investigative reporting. From day one, or even before I applied, it was my goal to be an IRP reporter because I knew that it had such a good reputation for pumping out really great investigative stories. 

Q. How did you find this story for David Barstow’s “Developing your Blockbuster Investigative Story?” second-year seminar? 

A. I was doing a summer internship in Vallejo between my first and second year, and I was working on a story about the Vallejo Police Department’s use of drones to surveil local residents. The story centered around the policy that dictated the use of those drones by the department. And in all of the hours I spent staring at that policy, I noticed that at the bottom of every page there was a copyright and the word ‘Lexipol,’ and I didn’t know what Lexipol was.

I typed it into Google and some investigative reporting had come up about how this company had come under fire for writing purposefully vague policies that allowed departments to skirt accountability. Like it made it hard to tell whether or not officers were violating policies, which made it harder for people to sue police departments.

I spent many, many hours digging through the Lexipol website and ended up watching every single training webinar on the Lexipol website. And in those webinars I found a lot of advice from a Lexipol co-founder named Bruce Praet that seemed a little off, or maybe the average person would hear that and think, ‘Hmm that doesn’t really seem to line up with the ethics and best practices of law enforcement.’ 

Q. How did you find the people in your story? How did you find Bruce Praet?

A. Well, Bruce Praet was the guy who gave the advice. He’s very boisterous in videos and so he was a character right off the bat. 

In terms of the other people in the story, I spent hours calling civil rights attorneys who specialize in law enforcement litigation, talking to past sources, people who were part of this unfortunate community of people who have lost loved ones to police violence. I got word out through them that I was looking for people who’d experienced this tactic. 

Civil rights attorneys turned me on to cases. People who’d lost loved ones to police violence turned me on to cases. Over the course of months, I was able to eventually build up a bunch of different people who claimed that this had happened to them. 

Q. How did you prepare for the interview with Bruce Praet in the parking lot, which is one of the best moments in the podcast?

A. I had a very nervous drive out to Fresno from the Bay Area. I spent time preparing questions with David [Barstow] ahead of time, so that we knew what questions we would ask if he let us ask one question, what questions we would ask if he gave us two minutes, what questions we would ask if he gave us an hour.

I went over those questions multiple times in the car beforehand. I leaned on my fellow classmates who supported me through this anxiety-ridden day and then….I kept in mind all of the people I had interviewed up to that point who had felt betrayed by law enforcement investigators and who certainly would have hoped I would have made sure he answered questions. 

I think you have to remember why you’re there. You’re not there for your own personal needs or interests. You’re there in the interest of uncovering the truth. Losing your cool in the face of insulting or aggressive sources only obstructs your path to truth. And so, remembering the families who I’d interviewed helped me keep my cool because I knew I was there on their behalf in some ways or at least on the behalf of uncovering the truth for them and for the readers.”

Q. How did the Blockbuster class support you in reporting this story?

A. I mean, gosh, I couldn’t have done this reporting without the investigative reporting class. It would have been impossible…I learned the organizational skills that I needed to successfully report this story. I learned the interview skills I needed….I learned how to structure a big investigative piece by going to this class, and all of the intricacies that come with that…Every aspect of it was covered in the class and so I was applying those skills as I was going. 

Q. What were the biggest challenges you faced in reporting the story? 

A. One of the biggest challenges, or the thing that was at the back of my mind constantly while I was reporting, was trying to approach families with the level of sensitivity that is required of interviewing people who’ve been through such traumatic situations.

Tracking down Bruce Praet was a huge challenge. I think determining a way to prove that this tactic had been deployed in real life was probably the first and biggest challenge because without that we didn’t have a story. And so figuring out how to use public records and testimonies from families — combining those two things to create an unassailable methodology for determining that this tactic had in fact been used on families who claimed it had been used on them was the biggest. 

Q. What were the most surprising or disturbing things that you uncovered as you pursued this story?

A. I think the most disturbing thing I found was how frequently this tactic was being used against families. And I think another disturbing aspect of it was the one California investigator who spoke to me on the record about this tactic and seemed to think of it as the equivalent of questioning a criminal suspect. This detective equated withholding a death notification from an innocent family member with that of lying to a criminal suspect that he was trying to bust in a crime. And that attitude toward the public, that attitude toward innocent people who were not suspected of a crime, I think was the most shocking thing that I found in the investigation.

Q. How do you keep your cool in a situation like your interview with Bruce Praet, when he’s saying, ‘I didn’t want to give you an interview’ and ‘You’re just going to spin this however you want!’ 

A. I think you have to remember why you’re there. You’re not there for your own personal needs or interests. You’re there in the interest of uncovering the truth. Losing your cool in the face of insulting or aggressive sources only obstructs your path to truth. And so, remembering the families who I’d interviewed helped me keep my cool because I knew I was there on their behalf in some ways or at least on the behalf of uncovering the truth for them and for the readers. 

And so, for me, it’s just remembering that as a reporter, you’re sort of a vessel for the truth. And so when people sling insults at you, you just can’t … take that seriously, right? Or you can’t take it personally anyway. Because who cares? Who cares if they shout insults at you? All you need for them to do is answer your questions. And so answering insults with more questions…gives you the best chance of getting those answers.

Q. How do you think of the impact of your reporting, both as you’re reporting and looking at any impact you’ve seen since the pieces were published?

A. When I’m reporting, impact is always in the back of my mind, but it’s not the top priority. You know, when I’m reporting the top priority is getting the facts down and making sure that we’re getting the truth or the closest thing to it out into the world. And impact is sort of secondary to telling the truth.

In the aftermath, though…it’s always the dream to get the truth out into the world and for that truth to make positive changes in the world… It’s sort of like the cherry on top of investigative work, I guess. In terms of this story, the impact that we’ve seen is that… Lexipol publicly apologized for Bruce Praet’s advice on their website [and] said that they would be more stringently vetting webinars in the future and… reiterated… that he was no longer at the company. 

Right now, one of the parents who experienced this tactic is in the process of pushing state representatives to sponsor a bill that would ban law enforcement from using this tactic in the future. It sounds like one state senator is actually interested in sponsoring the bill and they may be collaborating on language on that shortly… that’s really positive.

There was other reporting on Praet and Lexipol that was inspired by this reporting. We know of at least one city council member who is currently pushing his fellow council members to oust Lexipol from their city. That’s in Santa Ana, which is really interesting, because that’s basically Bruce Praet’s home turf.

Q. So, you reported this story in David Barstow’s second-year seminar, but then stayed on at the IRP through the summer to spend three more months on this investigation. How did that time allow you to sink deeper into the investigation? 

A. In those extra three months, I was able to confirm a lot more cases because I went from working on this story like 20–30 hours a week to being able to work on it full-time. And so, I was able to put in more records requests. I was able to confirm more cases… to push that case number up to 20. 

But I was also able, over that summer, to determine that this was a California specific issue. And that was really important because by the time I graduated, we still weren’t really sure whether or not this was a national story or whether or not this was a regional story, or a California story. I spent so many hours calling attorneys all over the country who specialized in police accountability and lawsuits, asking if they’d ever heard of this and filing records requests with agencies where I was tipped off to where this had maybe happened and talking to families and stuff like that. And so, even though really none of that reporting ended up in either of the stories, it was super, super helpful in determining … the geographic range of the tactic.

Q. Do you have any advice for current investigative reporting students?

A. Work your butt off. Take care of yourself. Don’t forget to sleep. 

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