How The N&O’s ‘Police Payouts’ series came about — and the questions we still have

If you value essential, local journalism, please reserve time for Virginia Bridgeseye-opening investigative report on police abuse cases settled by Raleigh.

You can search for “Police Payouts” on or look for “In the Spotlight,” our new, subscriber-focused series of independent, revelatory stories from News & Observer journalists on ongoing, high-interest topics of importance to the Triangle and North Carolina. So far, we’re spotlighting the governor’s race, the UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor search, online gambling’s impact on North Carolina and police abuse cases.

Virginia’s reporting in this exclusive N&O investigation “shows the City of Raleigh has paid nearly $4.3 million in settlements over allegations of excessive force and other unconstitutional acts since 2012. The settlements, many never publicly reported before, represent a small number of encounters police have with the public. But the similarities in the situations point to a bigger issue of problematic police behavior, civil rights lawyers and others say.”

Virginia is a tenacious, well-respected reporter and remarkable human being. She started requesting documents that led to this report more than three years ago.

North Carolina Investigations Editor Cathy Clabby has filled the roles of coach, editor, mentor and journalistic saint in supporting Virginia through this complicated — and unfinished — investigation. (Yes, there will be more to come.)

“I admire the persistence and ethics that Virginia poured into producing this public service journalism. She took pains to be accurate and fair in her description of what documents, sworn depositions and interviews revealed to her about complaints of police misconduct,” Cathy says.

The N&O had this investigation ready to publish before a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed Monday that contends Raleigh officers unnecessarily killed Darryl “Tyree” Williams a year ago.

The police’s confrontation with Williams is chronicled, based upon documents, in The N&O investigation. The report includes multiple stories (which you can find in links), including a breakdown of other settlement cases.

What follows is an edited Q&A with Virginia on the behind-the-scenes effort that went into her reporting.

What led you to focus on this investigation?

When I first made the request for settlement documents in August 2020, two men with disabilities, Keith Collins and Soheil Mojarrad, had been killed by police in so many years. Protests followed. The family of one of those men filed a lawsuit accusing the police of a pattern of abuse.

I started to think about how I could gather more information on these concerns, outside of the typical news-coverage pattern of relying on autopsy, police and prosecutor reports.

So that’s pretty much why I made my initial request for settlements in August 2020.

Candles are placed at a memorial for Darryl Williams outside Supreme Sweepstakes in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday evening, Jan. 19, 2023.
Candles are placed at a memorial for Darryl Williams outside Supreme Sweepstakes in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday evening, Jan. 19, 2023.

City officials responded to that request in March 2023, but it only included settlements through 2019. I continued looking at court documents and police related lawsuits, as well as compiling RPD use-of-force stats and looking at professional standards reports.

With so many levels of information, the challenge was choosing what story to tell.

But when I requested and received settlement agreements in the Mojarrad case ($1.25 million) in November 2023, and then the Fredrick Hall settlement ($60,000) a few days later, the patterns started to materialize and support some of the accusations outlined in some of the lawsuits.

It was at that point when the focus became more clear.

What were some of the pivotal challenges?

The pivotal challenges were the city’s delay in providing the records, and then the lack of response to questions like, this settlement isn’t signed … I just want to make sure it’s a settlement?

Or it looks like city attorneys wrote that Jeffrey Sadler was tased 11 times in this court document, am I reading that right?

I am not clear why there was so much of a delay in getting the agreements — also a question they didn’t answer.

What should be the takeaways for subscribers and the public?

I feel like often people want to categorize police interactions as either right or wrong.

They were committing a crime or they weren’t committing a crime.

Police felt threatened or they didn’t.

But the settlements show that it’s not that simple. Just like in any complex situation, the devil is in the details. And in 17 cases, the city weighed those details and decided to pay those families and individuals.

But what does that mean? What does it mean when the city denies wrongdoing to the public, but then pays a family $1.25 million. How should the public interpret that conflict? In the Mojarrad case, the city admitted to the officer not turning on his body-camera. Is that worth $1.25 million?

I don’t know. Because that’s another question city officials didn’t answer.

Bill Church is executive editor of The News & Observer.