New York Times columnist David Carr, who passed away at age 58 Thursday evening, was known to readers for his sharp, no-nonsense writings about the media world.
Carr’s unswerving sensibility also led him to the first big break of his career: a cover story about police brutality in Minneapolis, Minn.
In a June 2012 video interview with the website for media professionals, MediaBistro, Carr explained how he got his first story for the Twin Cities Reader, the weekly paper in his hometown of Minneapolis.
Carr, who was studying at the University of Minnesota at the time, got the tip from his father. His father’s friend Peter Trebtoske said he got beaten by Minneapolis police officers after he spoke up to them for roughing up a group of black men during an arrest.
Trebtoske ended up in an emergency room, with a swollen upper lip and a bone chip torn loose from his elbow. He was also charged with interfering with arrest and disorderly conduct.
“I said, ‘that’s outrageous! Someone should do a story about that.’ My dad, a really good guy, he said, ‘I kind of thought that’s what your business was,'” Carr said in the interview.
Carr decided to dig deeper. He was going to investigate the incident and then pitch the story to the Twin Cities Reader editor, hoping to tell him, “I have this blockbuster story about state-sponsored violence and torture.”
Without any press credentials, Carr went to the police department’s records office and asked the officer at the desk for the involved officers’ past disciplinary records. It turned out the supervising officer at the scene of the arrest, Sgt. William Chaplain, had been disciplined for past incidents.
In the 10,000-word story published in February 1982, Carr relayed details from the officers’ police reports and Trebtoske’s criminal trial (where he was found not guilty). Carr also writes about the local police union’s powerful influence over the city council. He interviewed the mayor and police chief about their efforts to reform the police department.
His story highlighted the widespread culture of police brutality in Minneapolis in the 1980s, writing that “the minority and gay community continue to describe the local police as occupying armies existing by their own rules.”
Carr begins the story describing the crowd that assembled as they watched the black men get arrested. “The locals didn’t like what they saw. But they were resigned. In situations such as this the die was cast at the outset.”
In his 2012 interview, Carr recalls how he grew up with a police department that lacked diversity or accountability for their actions. Speaking of the incident he covered, “the cops wanted to issue a little street justice, a little payback. It just sort of defied common sense.”
Following the events in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, New York City last year where unarmed black men died at the hands of police, many Americans feel issues of police use-of-force continue to impact their communities the way Carr recalled them in his first big scoop.