Emerson alum Cerise Castle awarded American Mosaic Journalism Prize


Emerson Today

Emerson Alumna Cerise Castle

By Quinn O'Connor, Staff Writer and Copyeditor

After Cerise Castle was struck by a rubber bullet while reporting on Black Lives Matter protests in Los Angeles on May 30, 2020, her doctors advised her to stay on bed rest for six months. That meant no going to work and no reporting in the field. However, for Cerise, the nation’s response following the murder of George Floyd was a call to action—sitting out was not an option.

Castle’s perseverance led her to win the Heising-Simons Foundation’s American Mosaic Journalism Prize on Feb. 14.

With her leg in a cast and limited mobility, Castle ‘15, a multimedia journalist and Emerson alumna, used her six months of bed rest to research deputy gangs, or groups participating in gang-like activity, inside the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. After spending hours poring over documents, she uncovered a trove of lawsuits totaling more than $100 million in taxpayer-funded settlements. She also exposed 18 gangs and 19 documented murders of people of color.

Soon after, Castle compiled a database of more than 300 deputies believed to be members of affiliate gangs within the LA County Sheriff’s Department by combing through officer testimonies during depositions. In March 2021, she published the 15-part investigative series, “A Tradition of Violence: The History of Deputy Gangs in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department,” in Knock LA,  a nonprofit community journalism project. It is the first-ever public, searchable database of gang-affiliated LASD employees. Castle’s investigation earned her the well-deserved recognition. 

“I really wanted to get the information out while people were still in the moment and willing to consider the realities that people of color have been living with for decades,” Castle said in an interview with the Beacon. “It felt like this was certainly the first time in my life where that wasn’t immediately openly questioned by the majority. It was a conversation that could be had, and I wanted to make sure that information was available while people were still open to having that conversation.”

The American Mosaic Journalism Prize honors excellence in long-form journalism about underrepresented groups in the country. It is the largest dollar prize given annually for journalism in the U.S., awarding each winner $100,000 for their work. Castle still grapples with what the award means for her and how she will use the money, but does know that it serves as a reminder that her reporting is an act of community service. 

“I didn’t feel good just sitting back and not engaging,” she said. “I’d spent the past several months working so hard to bring these issues to the forefront and get people talking about them, and following George Floyd’s murder, it felt like the world was finally ready to have that conversation.”

Castle’s reporting was met with hostility by some officers, including LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who insisted that there are no deputy gangs in his department even though they are clearly named in the database. Castle cited an incident in which the sheriff hosted an hour-long radio show in which he diminished Castle’s work and threatened her. 

While reporting, Castle suspected her demographic and her status as a freelance journalist led to increased intimidation from the Sheriff’s Department. At one point, Castle faced threats of having her home address leaked.

“I definitely think that me being a woman of color working with a small community outlet that didn’t have the presence of the Los Angeles Times or NPR empowered the naysayers to engage in intimidation practices,” she said. “I think that your platform and your impact do provide some level of protection, and at that point, I didn’t, and neither did Knock LA, have the resources of a more legacy outlet.” 

Castle has plans to write a book on police gang violence and is interested in making a documentary, a television show, and a feature film about the subject. Last year, her work received the American Journalism Online Award for best use of public records, as well as the Women in Media Foundation’s Courage Award.

“I have that thing that I imagine a lot of other women and people of color do, where it’s difficult to think of yourself as someone that’s important or making a contribution because of the way we’re socialized,” she said. “I really see it as establishment journalism, and the world at large, getting the chance to familiarize themselves with a topic that has affected the lives of so many people and getting to hear the stories of so many people that have often been ignored or gaslit, as far as their experiences with policing. That’s really important to me, to be able to give a platform to those experiences and hopefully make a change for the better.”