jamiekalven.jpgJamie Kalven in the study of his home. (Photo by Patricia Evans)

UPDATE, 7/31: This week, the City of Chicago released the misconduct complaint records sought by Kalven, and he has posted them online here. The release of the records was covered Wednesday in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times.

Among the documents is a list of the names of 662 Chicago police officers with more than 10 misconduct complaints between May 2001 and May 2006, produced by the city in the course of discovery for Diane Bond’s lawsuit. Of the five individual officers named as defendants in that case, four were on the list. 

When he posted a document online Wednesday, Kalven also published a statement that reads, in part:

The documents I received today from the City are lists, covering the period 2001 to 2008, of Chicago police officers who accumulated repeated complaints of abuse.  By releasing these lists, the Emanuel administration has taken a significant step away from the City’s long history of reflexively asserting official secrecy and thereby frustrating the possibility of meaningful police reform….

For far too long, the City has failed to connect the dots—to analyze the wealth of data represented by citizen complaints for the purpose of identifying and investigating patterns of abuse within the department.  With the release of the lists, the public now has greater leverage to demand that the City do such pattern analysis.

The long legal effort to make these lists public has rested on a fundamental principle: police officers are public officials vested with extraordinary powers. In our democracy, power demands accountability. 

Original story published July 22 appears below: 

CHICAGO, IL — Ten years ago, a school janitor named Diane Bond brought a civil rights lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department. Complaints get lodged against the police by the dozens every year, but this one stood out: Bond gave a ghastly account of alleged police misconduct—assaults, sexual and racial abuse, threats to plant false evidence, among others—perpetrated by a group of officers from a roving gang tactical unit.

Known as the “Skullcap Crew” for their signature knit caps, the officers had for years tormented Bond and other residents of the Stateway Gardens, a public housing development that occupied eight crime-plagued blocks of Chicago’s South Side. But no one wrote about her case when it was filed.

Then, in July 2005, Jamie Kalven—an independent journalist who doubled as a community organizer at Stateway—began publishing a string of posts titled, “Kicking the Pigeon.” The series, which grew to 17 installments, detailed Bond’s allegations, the progress of her lawsuit, and broader questions surrounding police misconduct and accountability. To round out his reporting, Kalven sued the city to gain access to records of the police misconduct complaints compiled for Bond’s case.

In the years since, much has changed. The Skullcap unit has been disbanded. Stateway’s high-rises have been torn down as part of the city’s radical plan to reshape public housing. And the Bond case itself was settled out of court, with the city paying $150,000.

But one thing remained: Kalven’s fight for the police records. Until recently, that is.

In March, a state appeals court handed Kalven an unlikely victory, casting aside the city’s insistence that the records were part of a confidential disciplinary process, and that releasing them would violate the officers’ privacy.

The city vowed to appeal the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court—only to reverse course last week, when it agreed to release so-called “complaint register” files in response to state FOIA requests. “Ultimately we concluded that … it will serve a greater public good to allow these investigations to be subject to open records laws,” city attorney Steve Patton said in a statement.

The move represents a major policy shift for a city still reeling from its long, unproud history of turning a blind eye to bad cops. The change has been welcomed by the Chicago media establishment, much of which joined the push to open the records near the end. “The belief that police officers won’t be held accountable for misconduct undermines public confidence in the department,” declared an editorial about the news in the Chicago Tribune, adding, “It’s a huge problem in the city’s most violent neighborhoods.”

It’s a change that would not have happened if not for Kalven—and a transparency fight Kalven would not have taken on, had he not been immersed for years in one of Chicago’s poorest and most abandoned communities and seen what the police impunity really looked like.

Rui Kaneya is CJR's correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. A former investigations editor at The Chicago Reporter, Kaneya was a recipient of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Minority Fellowship and the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Minority Fellowship in Urban Journalism. He has received numerous journalism awards, among them the Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists’ Salute to Excellence National Media Award. Follow him on Twitter @ruikaneya.