Lawrence Mower's career as an investigative journalist began with death. But his reporting in the wake of tragedies has made life safer for residents in Las Vegas, said his mentor and UNLV journalism professor Mary Hausch.
"He'll never know who they are," Hausch said, "but he saved people's lives."
Mower, '06 BA Journalism & Media Studies, is now a watchdog reporter known for sweeping investigations into public agencies. An investigative reporter for the Palm Beach Post in Florida, he cut his teeth in UNLV's backyard at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Nevada's largest newspaper. Within five years of graduating, he had proven himself to be one of the top investigators in the state.
His 2011 investigation "Deadly Force" was an exhaustive study of about 400 police shootings over two decades in Las Vegas. The series was sparked by the shooting death of a small-time marijuana dealer named Trevon Cole, who was unarmed when he was shot and killed by police in his Las Vegas apartment with his pregnant girlfriend in the other room.
Shootings by police were a common occurrence in Las Vegas, often discussed strongly in the media and public for a few weeks but then fading away without any changes to address the problems. Mower had only a few years' experience as a reporter, but he knew that this story couldn't fade.
"It stunk to high heaven," Mower said. "I just knew something was deeply wrong with the system here."
Mower's interest grew after the Cole shooting and another controversial shooting in 2010. Generally such shootings were treated as solitary events in media coverage. Mower, then a police beat reporter, wondered about the deeper questions: Were police officers in Las Vegas using deadly force more often than those in other departments? Could the shooting deaths have been prevented? And if so, how?
He figured he'd find the answers to his questions in the data, and used the sources he'd developed on the police beat to guide him in the right direction.
But that would prove a bigger challenge. The police department fee for fulfilling the records requests was $11,000, a steep amount for any newspaper, and a big investment to make in a reporter with little experience.
Hausch, a former managing editor at the paper, notes that the Review-Journal hadn't had a strong track record of battling agencies for public records. "I was shocked the R-J paid it, and I think the police were shocked they paid it," she said, adding that "it's one of the reasons newspapers' roles are so important." But the newspaper paid the fee, and its investment paid off.
Mower spent a full year away from daily assignments and focused only on his investigation, which revealed a history of excessive deadly force -- disproportionally against African-Americans -- with very little discipline for mishandling situations.
By the second day of his five-day series, an official at the U.S. Department of Justice made inquiries into the Clark County sheriff's office. Within a few years, the department completely overhauled its use-of-force policies, reducing shootings and increasing transparency. As a result of the changes, the department fired an officer for mishandling a police shooting for the first time in its history. The changes also led to the department expanding the use of officer body cameras. Read Conduct on Camera to learn about how UNLV is helping the department to study the effectiveness and drawbacks.
While it was his idea, Mower said he couldn't have done it alone. Other reporters, editors, photographers, and managers helped produce the award-winning investigation, which is still the largest examination into police shootings with that level of detail, he said. Jim Wright, an editor at the paper with a background in investigations, did much of the organization. He also helped Mower form the blueprint of the project.
"I had no concept of the hours it would take," Mower said. "It was a great idea. What I really needed was someone to point me in the right direction. Just the organization part was astounding."
Running the Numbers
Mower's coverage of police defined his time at the Review-Journal, but he wasn't always sure it was for him. He majored in accounting at UNLV, but switched to journalism after three years -- late in the process for most college students. That background brought a new element to his reporting, he said. Reporters tend to be word people.
"I took statistics, economics, all those prerequisites for accounting," he said. "I think that really makes you comfortable thinking about how numbers play into real-world situations."
He first interned at the Review-Journal while still a student at UNLV and a writer for The Rebel Yell student newspaper. He landed the job after investigating several crimes at UNLV, including shootings, fatal car crashes, and mysterious campus deaths. Mower credits Hausch for getting him in the door at the Review-Journal.
Hausch said Mower's talent and enthusiasm were apparent the first time he stepped into her class at UNLV, and she still points to him to inspire her current students. "None of his success has surprised me," she said. "He looks at the world a little differently from other people."
His editors at the Review-Journal quickly threw the eager intern into the fray. Mower recalls being sent to every fatal accident early in his career. It was sometimes tedious work, but it got him out of the office and sharpened his reporting skills. One of his first front-page stories included a piece on Henry Prendes, a Las Vegas patrol sergeant who was gunned down while investigating a domestic disturbance.
Mower transcribed the 911 call in which a witness describes Prendes' killing. "It was pretty graphic and awful," he said. "I was like, 'I'm not sure I want to be doing too much of this.'" But he thrived as he developed his skills on the always eventful police beat.
Other publications took notice of the "Deadly Force" series. In 2013 Mower joined the staff of the Palm Beach Post as a full-time investigative reporter. It didn't take him long to find his next story. He read an article in Wired magazine about a Canadian who discovered a flaw in the lottery's scratch-off games. He wondered if the same thing was happening in Florida, which has one of the biggest lotteries in the U.S. "It was just a hunch. Not even a hypothesis at that point," Mower said.
After requesting Florida's database of lottery winners, Mower didn't find fraud with scratch-off cards -- he found something even bigger.
The data proved that the state's top winners statistically couldn't have been winning as often as they had. He identified some suspects who ran ticket-cashing schemes, sometimes for the mob. And he found that some storeowners were likely keeping winning tickets for themselves, defrauding their customers.
In a bit of irony, Mower left Las Vegas before he began investigating gambling fraud. "I was thinking that if this was a casino, someone would have taken these people into back rooms and asked them some tough questions," he said.
The state's lottery officials had access to the same data Mower used, but hadn't analyzed it. And they didn't act on the issue until Mower widely exposed the system's flaws in the series "Gaming the Lottery."
A few days after the series published last year, the state began raiding the stores he'd identified in the investigation. The story had impact across the country. Media in Boston; Atlanta; Dayton, Ohio; and Los Angeles used Mower's data-mining techniques to identify fraud in their own state's lottery systems.
Next? Mower is returning to the subject that made his career: police shootings and law enforcement corruption, this time in Florida.
While such incidents continue to make headlines, thanks in large part to the rise of video, he is concerned about dwindling resources for investigative journalism. He developed his skills by going to crime scenes, talking with victims and suspects, and listening to concerned cops. An emphasis on being first with breaking news has led newsrooms to focus less on the depth and uncovering trends. Without the time to develop sources, his stories would have lacked important context, and he doesn't think he would have progressed as quickly as a reporter.
"You don't learn anything sitting at your desk," he said.
Follow Lawrence Mower on Twitter, @lmower3.