It was the latter light that drew Hannah Dreier to Huntsville, Alabama, to explore the thorny intersection of policing and mental health. The result was “The worst-case scenario,” a rare insider’s view of a week in the real life of a cop.
Dreier’s story, published July 24, 2020, in the Washington Post, left many of us wondering: How did she do that? Cops aren’t keen on reporter ride-alongs; distrust of most media has only deepened as protests against police violence have intensified; and COVID makes it even harder to get to the center of a story.
Dreier went into the assignment with trust issues of her own: After three years on the ground in Venezuela for the Associated Press, she was no fan of “parachute journalism.”
She pushed past all of that to spend a week with the Huntsville, Alabama, police, and specifically to profile a few days on the job with veteran Officer Thomas Parker. Nailing the story was a blend of persistence, patience and professional credibility: Dreier covered policing in Long Island for ProPublica, and won the 2019 Pulitzer in feature writing for narratives about Salvadoran immigrants who got swept up in federal gang sweeps. Now she also had access to the Post’s database on police shootings.
But there was a wrinkle: When she got the go-ahead from the Huntsville Police Department to join their officers for a de-escalation training, she had to be there the next morning. Wary of flying while COVID rages, she rented a car and drove 12 hours through the night.
“It was nerve-wracking to just drive into the night and see what would happen,” she said.
What happened was nothing she could predict. After the de-escalation training session, she followed Parker into the field, where he responded to repeat calls to the same address. After the first visit, he decided the woman in question was faking mental illness. But the return call led to a tense confrontation with a mentally ill woman who had a desperate husband, a toddler and a gun. It was all more fraught by the presence of several neighbors with cell phone cameras, watching as things played out between a white cop and a Black suspect.
The resulting narrative is tightly framed and paced. Context about the larger national controversy is woven throughout, but never takes away from the focus or tension. Dreier’s reporting reveals nuanced challenges associated with policing and mental health; this aren’t just abstract issue, but a series of wrenching choices made by real people in moments of intense pressure.
As one of those journalists who, upon reading her story, wondered how she did it, I reached out to ask. Our email conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How was this story conceived? How did you report it?
This year has been so strange for enterprise reporting. I’ve often felt like there are only one or two stories out there right now, and everyone in the country is covering them. This piece came out of trying to think through what I might be able to add to coverage of police reform and the anti-racism movement. I was messing around with the Washington Post’s police shootings database and noticed that, in some cities, a huge number of people killed by police were mentally ill.
My idea was to go to one of those cities and try to learn about what police were facing on these mental health calls, and why they so often ended in violence. I reached out to a few different police departments, but everyone was pretty leery about having a reporter come out amid the pandemic and the protests. So I was thrilled when then I got through to the Huntsville, Alabama, department one afternoon, and they told me they were doing a special training the next morning to help officers de-escalate mental health calls, and I could sit in. I rented a car and drove through the night to get there. I ended up spending a week on ride-alongs with one of the officers in that training, Thomas Parker, trying to understand what he took from the class and what his job was like day-to-day.
What was the most interesting facet of the story to you going in? Did it change during the reporting?
I thought the story would probably focus on the need for mental health de-escalation training. That’s the solution most often put forward when police departments come under criticism for these kinds of shootings. But then I found out it’s really unclear how effective the training is. All four of the Minneapolis officers involved in the killing of George Floyd had received the training, for example.
So my focus shifted to trying to capture the nuances of what happens when a police officer is asked to do a job he didn’t sign up for and feels unqualified for. What I found was that the officers were relating to residents in ways I didn’t expect. Even though they called themselves “meatheads” and said they rejected the principles of de-escalation, the officers were actually using a lot of the tactics taught in the training. Police officers, like the Black Lives Matter protesters, didn’t think they should be the ones responding to these situations in the first place. But they were muddling through with basic human instincts and compassion. At the same time, it was obvious how easily these calls could go wrong.
There’s vivid detail when you’re describing Officer Parker’s response to a potentially mentally ill woman. Getting that kind of detail, especially when reporting on law enforcement, can be difficult. How did you report that scene? Body cam footage? Follow-up interviews? Police reports?
I was there! A lot of the process of reporting this story was just me trying to convince the police department to let me keep hanging around. After I drove out for that training, I started getting to know the officers, the police chief, and people in local government, and worked to convince them to let me do ride-alongs.
Of course I didn’t know what the story would look like until Parker had this interaction with the mentally ill woman. I was there when he drove out to her apartment to do a wellness check and decided she was faking mental illness. I was also standing next to him the next day when he was called back to the apartment because now she had a gun and was threatening the neighbors. With the second call, I followed Parker past people recording with their cellphones and into the woman’s apartment. I was standing there with my notebook while he tried to talk her down and find the gun.
It was one of those moments where you’re just hoping no one remembers you’re there and kicks you out.
The details about Parker’s call are dramatic, but I was also impressed with the more reflective moment when Parker discussed the incident later with the officer who trained him when he first joined the force. How did you capture that?
One reason I joined the Post was to work on editor David Finkel’s team, which really only does immersion journalism. The idea is that you don’t reconstruct anything — you just get yourself in place so that when the key moment comes, you’re there to observe it in real time. This is my second story in that style and I’m still learning what goes into it. Some of it involves furiously writing in my notebook. Some of it is about listening for dialogue. A lot comes down to putting in the time and waiting until something revealing happens. And trusting that it will.
With this moment, I had a pretty good idea that I was going to focus the story around that one call with the mentally ill woman with a gun, so when Parker organically started talking about that incident, and the larger issue of whether police should even be the ones responding to mental health calls, I knew to pay attention.
What were the most significant challenges, either with the reporting or writing?
It was very uncomfortable to not know what the story would look like until I was almost done reporting. That’s something my colleagues on this team, Eli Saslow and Stephanie McCrummen, do brilliantly. They’re constantly turning these vivid, urgent stories on the topic of the day. I usually go more slowly, and put in public records requests, read lots of news clips, and talk with experts by the time I think about writing. In 2018, I spent a full year reporting on a police department on Long Island before I published a single word. In this case, I jumped into a new topic and a new place on basically a few hours’ notice. I worried nothing interesting would emerge. But it wasn’t the kind of story you could really plan out. After I saw that second call with the gun, everything was much easier.
What do you take away from this experience?
This story changed my mind about the evils of parachute journalism. I was a correspondent in Venezuela for a bunch of years, and I would often get annoyed when reporters would come through for a few days and then write some big takeout on the state of the country. Before going to Huntsville, I almost went to Chicago to write a quick-turn story about the protests there, but I was worried about writing something facile. For this story, I consciously tried to avoid reducing Huntsville to a single moment, or even saying much about Huntsville at all. Instead, I tried to get as deep as I could into this one incident, to help explain a phenomenon playing out across the country. I was going on the theory that the more specific the story, the more general the implications.
I’ll be more open to parachuting in for stories in the future, because I learned there’s a style of that kind of reporting that’s comfortable for me. It also helped that the Post let me stay in Alabama for two weeks.
The Post has been reporting deeply on policing for years, including building the police-shooting database. But there’s heightened attention now, on both policing and reporting about police. What kind of response have you received from readers?
The reader email felt different on this one.
I came into this story thinking it was going to just be about police mental health training, and it ended up being about the way police are funded, crumbling mental health services, a segregated city, guns in America and lots of other things. There’s a tendency in stories like this to report toward outrage. But all through the process, Finkel was reminding me that I should be reporting to reveal, not to confirm. So I really tried to be an impartial observer of this one tense incident, while still including all the relevant context.
After the story ran, I got notes from both Black Lives Matter protesters and retired cops saying the story helped them understand the other side better. Hundreds of people wrote in, and a lot of them were thanking me for helping them see the complexities of an issue they had felt like they already understood, which was a new one for me.
Who do you read to learn or be inspired?
When I discover a journalist whose style I love, I often want to be a completist and read everything they’ve written. I’ve done that for Pam Colloff and Ginger Thompson (both now with ProPublica) Katherine Boo (formerly at the Washington Post, now an author and contributing writer to the New Yorker) and John Woodrow Cox here at the Post.
I usually read fiction instead of non-fiction books at the end of the day, to try to turn off the journalism part of my brain. I was reading Jane Austin’s “Persuasion” while I wrote this story, and maybe drew some inspiration about sinking into scenes and letting moments stretch out a bit.
I’ve also been watching old Alfred Hitchcock movies, which is not specifically about writing, but definitely has lessons for anyone interested in tension.
Trevor Pyle is a staff writer at the Skagit Valley Herald, a daily newspaper north of Seattle. A longtime Washington state resident, he has covered education, news and sports in his career. He writes fiction and poetry when he’s not chasing the news.