Baton Rouge daily The Advocate was the sole newspaper honored this week with the national Sunshine Award by The Society of Professional Journalists. The Advocate won the award, given for important contributions in the pursuit of open government, for a package of stories earlier this year detailing police harassment of Katrina refugees. The Advocate spent four years fighting to obtain access to information for the story. In July 2006, the paper sued the Baton Rouge Police Department for access to the documents related to its internal affairs probe of the brutality allegations. It took a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling this year before the department finally relented to release the information.

In today's environment of dwindling newspaper budgets, that type of commitment is rare and deserves recognition. Here's what SPJ had to say in honoring the paper's dogged reporting:

In the days following Hurricane Katrina, volunteer state police from New Mexico and Michigan abruptly left Baton Rouge, La., due to the questionable standards of conduct from the city’s police department toward evacuees. For four years The Advocate newspaper fought denied access to information regarding the racist and abusive behavior.

In February, the paper produced a package of stories as well as an editorial describing the extent of the brutality. The expose included allegations of police officers using demeaning language, routinely harassing African Americans, physically abusing citizens and seeking to “make life rough for New Orleans evacuees so they would leave town.” Against lack of support and financial odds, The Advocate established a precedent, rebuking the police contention that privacy issues and their volition did not override the public’s right to know how public officials conduct themselves.

Read the original Advocate article "Post-Katrina reports detail alleged police misconduct" here.

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