Just as I was finishing reading my copy of a great, new book on an impressive feat of police reporting, the news broke in Philadelphia: no criminal charges will be filed by state or federal authorities against the police officers whose exploits were at the center of the book and a newspaper series that preceded it. The reasons cited (statute of limitations tolling; lack of reliable evidence) sound mighty lame when viewed from the perspective of a reader captivated by the story told by Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker in Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia police now are deciding whether to put the cops back on active duty. If that happens, add one more betrayal, if not corruption, to the list documented in the newspaper series and book.
What Ruderman and Laker revealed in their 2009 Philadelphia Daily News series “Tainted Justice” — which won them the Pulitzer for investigative reporting — certainly sounded worthy of criminal charges: lying to justify search warrants; molesting women unlucky enough to be home when the drug raids took place; ransacking stores for money and merchandise, after disabling video cameras (in one notorious clip, we hear the cops wondering whether anyone off-site can monitor the videos and see them doing their “work” — clearly these are men up to no good). All the while, the police and their defenders (then and now) deny all, painting the reporters and their sources as enemies and liars.
As storytelling, Busted succeeds on two levels: its stated purpose, in showing the challenges of finding and telling these stories of police corruption, and in the backstory — performing this difficult work at a newspaper, and in an industry, that is crumbling before our eyes. More than dropped investigations, that’s the postscript to this story that I find so disheartening. As difficult as it was in a shrinking newsroom to perform this work, imagine doing it today, just five years later. Or next year. Or 10 years from now.
It’s nothing short of a miracle — and a testament to these reporters’ dedication and talent — that a resource-poor Daily News managed to keep its commitment to watchdog journalism, against great odds. Whether that could still happen in a city the size of Philadelphia or in smaller markets is a question that grows harder by the day to answer with a “yes.”