Five years after their explosive investigation of rogue narcotics cops, Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker's stunning new book, Busted, takes us behind the scenes to see how it all went down.
It began when a nervous drug informant walked through the front door of the Philadelphia Daily News and asked to see police beat reporter Wendy Ruderman. He spun her and colleague Barbara Laker an unlikely story of ethical breaches by a seemingly upstanding narcotics officer. The two journalists began poking around—and by the time 10 months had gone by, they’d not only confirmed the informant’s allegations, they’d uncovered a cadre of narcotics officers whose alleged wrongdoings included among them serial sexual assault and the terrorizing and burglarizing of neighborhood bodegas. The Daily News published Ruderman and Laker’s ongoing series under the title “Tainted Justice,” and in 2010 the reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
Now, four years later, they’re finally telling the full story of how their hunt for justice went down. Their gritty, honest, often surprisingly funny book, Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love (HarperCollins, $25.99 hardcover/$12.74 Kindle), hits bookstores on Tues, March 11, and the authors will appear at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Tues., March 18 to talk and sign copies. PW talked with Ruderman and Laker this week about what they discovered while investigating the “Tainted Justice” scandal—and what they think of journalism in Philly today.
You two reported “Tainted Justice” as a collaborative team. When it came time to tell your own story in Busted, how did you decide that the book would be written first-person singular from Wendy’s perspective?
RUDERMAN: We tried alternating voices each chapter, but it just didn’t work. It was jarring for readers and hurt the narrative flow of the book. We felt third person was, well, too impersonal for the book. Ultimately, we went with my voice only because Benny [the informant] came to me first, sent by way of one of my sources. So the decision was one of practicality.
The first “Tainted Justice” story led you, unexpectedly, to discover a group of narcotics cops whose alleged offenses were terrifying to the poor people in the communities they patrolled: an officer who was widely reputed to molest women while searching their houses, a posse who were caught on videotape intimidating a bodega owner and removing property from his store. By the time all was said and done, those officers would all be removed from patrol duty—though not fired or criminally charged—which is the sort of direct community impact that investigative journalists always hope for. Can you talk a bit about the value of sustained beat reporting? How important was it to accomplishing your investigations that you were able to devote the bulk of your attention to this one series over a long period of time?
RUDERMAN: Beat reporting provides the critical seeds, so to speak, for investigative reporting. The best investigative pieces, we believe, grow out of cultivating sources on a beat. Just before Benny came to the Daily News, I was writing story after story about police brutality. That’s how I earned the trust of Wellington Stubbs II, then an investigator with the Police Advisory Commission. Barbara was editing those stories. We could not have continued the “Tainted Justice” series without our editors giving us time to pursue tips and chase leads. With such a small news staff, roughly 16 reporters on the city desk, we couldn’t have done it without the support from the entire staff. Reporters worked hard, often writing two or three dailies a day, so we could continue to dig. Everyone on the staff, most of all editor Michael Days, believed in the series. But the series was what we call a “rolling investigation,” and as we dug deeper and unearthed yet another angle, we published it—so it wasn’t the kind of series in which we disappeared from the pages for 10 months and then, bam, put the whole thing in the paper. We would finish one story, and our editor, Gar Joseph, would turn to us and ask, “OK, where are you going next?” And we always had an answer.
Considering what you were able to accomplish, how do you assess the state of Philadelphia journalism today—not just at the Daily News and Inquirer, but across the city’s various news media? As papers shrink, nonprofit news organizations experiment with new approaches and broadcast keeps on broadcasting, is the city still benefiting from journalists conducting your kind of intense single-subject reporting?
LAKER: Investigative journalism is important because it’s this kind of watchdog journalism that exposes wrongdoing and can trigger change. It’s essential to a democracy. Philadelphia newspapers, including the dailies and weeklies, and broadcast outlets, still are able to do it—albeit on a shoestring budget. Years ago, reporters were able to spend a year delving into a tip that may never come to fruition. We no longer have that luxury. After a few weeks, if the proof isn’t there, we have to cut our losses and move on. Given the shrinking staff and dollars, reporters have to carefully choose the stories they want to chase and truly push for them. Editors have to give reporters time, which means we have to let go of some other stories. We have to make more difficult choices. Outside the traditional model, nonprofit organizations like ProPublica have been hugely successful—and in 2010, it became the first online news source to win a Pulitzer. It has significant financial support from foundations, so that does seem to be one successful alternative to traditional newspapers.
In going after wrongdoing by narcotics officers, you came up against a lot of hate mail from readers who were inclined to justify pretty much all police behavior based on the assumption that all the “good guys” must be honest. You also were helped by law enforcement officials both in and out of the PPD who wanted to see bad cops reigned in. What have you learned in the course of your work about Philly’s relationship with the police—and about the police’s internal cultural struggles?
LAKER: Our critics went silent after we started reporting about the cops allegedly looting the bodegas. We learned that there’s a huge divide in Philly, especially between people who live in the poorest, most drug-infested neighborhoods and police. It’s very hard to be a cop in Philly because there are so many guns on the street, and some people aren’t scared to fire them—even at someone in blue. Yet when citizens, like the women in our book, file complaints [that never get followed up] they feel they have no voice, and they lose faith in a department that says it will investigate cops accused of wrongdoing. These women are petrified of cops. So are the bodega owners. There is also a struggle within the department itself. Some cops desperately want to weed out bad apples, knowing that they taint the entire department, while others defend bad-behaving cops at any cost. There is also a belief among some cops that there’s one set of rules for the beat cops and a different set of rules for police brass.
You talk throughout Busted about the parallel courses of your work and your personal lives—for instance, there’s a lot about Wendy’s family missing her presence on a daily basis and about Barbara’s classically feminine presentation affecting the way people interact with her. Why was it important to you to let the reader see these personal aspects of your own stories in the context of your work chasing down the “Tainted Justice” stories? Does it strengthen journalism to provide audiences with a somewhat transparent view into the journalists themselves?
RUDERMAN: Well, we were writing the story behind the story. We viewed ourselves as characters in the book, just like Jeff and Benny and Brian Tierney. It only seemed right to share our own baggage and flaws—or foibles—if we were examining the same for the other characters in the book. Reporters are people, warts and all, and we felt we owed it to readers to pull back the curtain and show them our own brand of crazy. Ultimately, we didn’t want the book to be a dry how-to or procedural. We wanted readers to feel like they knew us and, hopefully, related to us on some level.
In discussing the internal life of the dailies, you note: “It was ridiculous that reporters at the two newspapers—owned by the same company, operating out of the same building—regarded one another as competition, even enemies. Ridiculous, that is, to everyone but us.” Naturally, teams of journalists are competitive—and competition is one thing that motivates people. Do you think today, in the big picture of the 21st-century newspaper industry, that maintaining two separate, independent city-daily news operations within the same company is more of a boon to Philly journalism, because it keeps reporters fired up, or more of a drawback, because it means dividing the company’s resources?
LAKER: We think the city benefits from two newspapers because we have completely different voices and audiences. We’re more brazen and bold and push the envelope. We often pick different stories to chase or investigate—yet still worry if the Inky is on our tail or could possibly beat us to the punch. The Daily News doesn’t cost a lot to run so we joke that we’re like a cheap date happy in a dive bar drinking a Bud Light. We kind of embrace being the underdog, the little mutt who fights to win—and laugh that we buy our own pens at Giant and don’t have cups for champagne.
Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker will discuss Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Tues., March 18 at 7:30pm. Free. 1901 Vine St. 215.567.4341. freelibrary.org