CIR’s California Watch wins Polk award for second straight year

We are proud to write today that the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch has won the George Polk Award for our series exposing flaws in the way a special state police force handles crimes against the developmentally disabled.

It is the second consecutive year that California Watch has won the prestigious George Polk Award. This year, we are being honored in the category of state reporting for Ryan Gabrielson’s extraordinary series “Broken Shield.”

The series has prompted far-reaching change, including a criminal investigation, staff retraining and new laws – all intended to bring greater safeguards and accountability.

Gabrielson was one of 14 Polk award winners announced today by Long Island University, which administers the prizes. University officials said more than 700 stories were submitted to the judges. Other winners include The New York Times, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Bloomberg News, CBS News, The Washington Post and Mother Jones.

The Polk award is named after a CBS newsman murdered while covering the Greek Civil War in 1948.

Gabrielson’s 18-month investigation about the Office of Protective Services snowballed over the course of 2012 – resulting in five major installments from February to November. The police force was set up specifically to protect the developmentally disabled living in the state’s five remaining board-and-care centers. But Gabrielson found that the department’s officers and detectives often failed to secure crime scenes and routinely delayed interviews with key witnesses and suspects – leading to an alarming inability to solve crimes.

Gabrielson detailed that dozens of women were sexually assaulted inside state centers, but police investigators didn’t order “rape kits” to collect evidence, a standard law enforcement tool. Police waited so long to investigate one sexual assault that the staff janitor accused of rape fled the country. The police force’s inaction also allowed abusive caregivers to continue molesting patients – even after the department had evidence that could have stopped future assaults.

In one egregious physical abuse case, a caregiver was suspected of using a Taser to inflict burns on a dozen patients. Yet the internal police force waited at least nine days to interview the caregiver, who was never arrested or charged with abuse. The vast majority of the Taser victims are so disabled they cannot utter a word.

Gabrielson gave them a resounding voice.

“This is the type of reporting that ends up actually saving lives,” wrote Patricia L. McGinnis, executive director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, in thanking Gabrielson and California Watch.

The winners of the Polk award will be honored at a luncheon in New York in April.

Gabrielson was the reporter for the series. Several staffers in the newsroom contributed to the project – most notably Agustin Armendariz, who provided data analysis; Carrie Ching, who produced two videos for the series; Monica Lam who produced a broadcast video distributed to TV partners; and Robert Salladay, who edited the project.

Last year, California Watch won a George Polk Award for uncovering a pattern inside a fast-growing hospital chain that had repeatedly billed Medicare for rare ailments that generate lucrative bonus payments to the chain.

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