Journalist Cerise Castle ’15 was awarded the American Mosaic Journalism Prize for her 15-part series uncovering deputy gangs operating inside the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
The Heising-Simons Foundation gives the annual prize for excellence in long-form journalism about underrepresented groups in the country. The Prize comes with $100,000.
“Cerise Castle’s investigative journalism tenaciously unmasks extremism in our institutions. This includes a series of reports revealing a history of deputy gangs in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which has led to legal action. This is high-stakes and revelatory work, reported with grit and bravery,” said the judges about Castle’s work.
Castle’s series exposed 18 gangs, 19 documented murders (all of whom were of people of color), and more than $100 million dollars in lawsuits paid for by the people of Los Angeles, said the Heising-Simons Foundation. Castle’s article first appeared in Knock LA, a nonprofit community journalism project, and she continued to do reporting on the topic late in 2021 and in 2022.
In 2022, Castle’s received the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism Award. The story received the American Journalism Online Award for best use of public records, reported the Associated Press.
“I think it just shows there is a great need for this type of work and it’s always been there,” said Castle. “I got into this because I heard about deputy gangs since I was a kid. It’s stories that have been passed along generations and there hasn’t been formal accounting. I don’t think it’s a unique story. I think it’s a story that needs to be told in every municipality. I think civilians and sworn officers would agree with that.”
Castle said she wants to tell the story in as many media as possible. She created A Tradition of Violence podcast about the same subject matter in October 2022, and that has been nominated by The Publisher Awards & Summit for Best Investigative Podcast. She has continued to report on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
She’s working on a book on the topic, and is interested in making a documentary, a television show, and a feature film.
“I want to reach as many people as possible and encourage people to learn about policing agencies where they’re living, and inspire some new journalists to get into investigating matters that affect their own lives,” said Castle.
She said Emerson gave her the skills to work across different media.
“I chose Emerson because it was the only school that integrated radio, television, and print in their journalism program,” said Castle. “I really credit [Emerson] to allowing me to work and be successful in a number of platforms, and give me the tenacity to do stories in any platform.”
Castle cited several Emerson professors for providing her with an on-ramp into journalism, including Senior Journalist-in-Residence Cindy Rodriguez, former Journalist-in-Residence Carole Simpson, and former affiliated faculty member Martha Little.
“There were a lot of great women who were really instrumental,” said Castle.
“[Rodriguez] really went out of her way teach how to be fearless and go after a story. She took me on my first-ever door knock [for a story],” said Castle. “Carole Simpson was another fantastic professor. She really encouraged me to always speak the truth to my reality.”
Her advice to Emersonians aspiring to be investigative journalists is to familiarize themselves with public records disclosure laws.
“Start sending letters. [My series] came from one public records request,” said Castle. “I would say the most powerful storytelling is coming from local levels. I would encourage people to join local newsrooms, do local stories, and do freelance stories where you live.”
She added there is a part of her investigative series that doesn’t get enough attention.
“The story of the families living through this horrific reality of losing your loved one due to deputy violence,” said Castle. “as well as consequences for speaking out about what happened to them. I can’t speak enough about these families, and their resilience of living through an experience like this.”
Castle’s previous work has been featured in VICE News, NPR, The Daily Beast, the Los Angeles Times and MTV.