Inside The Invisible Institute’s fight for police accountability

On Tuesday, the Citizen Data Project won a $400,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to further its work on police accountability. Run out of The Invisible Institute, a civic journalism outlet in Chicago, the Citizen Data Projects plans on using the money to expand its database on police misconduct, entering the next stage in a decade-long pursuit to release and share that data with the public. A turning point in the battle came in 2014, when a landmark FOIA case compelled the city to release misconduct data it had long fought to keep secret.

The plaintiff in that case, Jamie Kalven, is the founder of The Invisible Institute, and he’s been fighting for police accountability since long before it was cool. The FOIA lawsuit Kalven v. Chicago was filed in 2007, but his interest in the misconduct complaints began before that, when he was a reporter and community organizer at Stateway Gardens, a crime-ridden housing project in Chicago’s South Side. 

In 2003, a 51-year-old Stateway resident named Diane Bond was repeatedly abused over the course of about a year, by a group of police officers known as the “Skullcap Crew.” They raided her home on several occasions under the pretense of searching for drugs, cuffed her, beat her teenage son, and forced her to expose herself. The officers were infamous in the neighborhood and behaved seemingly without any fear of reprisal, continuing to threaten and harass Bond even after she reported them to the Office of Professional Standards, the body tasked with investigating complaints of excessive force by officers.

Kalven chronicled Bond’s story on his blog and was instrumental in bringing her case to court several years later. It was the discovery process in Bond’s lawsuit that ultimately led Kalven on the quest to release the misconduct reports. The 2014 decision by an appellate court in Illinois to release those records–which included the names of 662 Chicago police officers who had individually amassed more than 10 complaints between 2001 and 2006–set a precedent that police misconduct records statewide are subject to FOIA, opening a new avenue for journalists, activists, and citizens to investigate police accountability. 



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The Citizen Data Project launched an interactive database in November, which includes misconduct records from the past four years and has already spawned stories by several Chicago-based and national news outlets. Just this week, the Chicago Sun-Times published a story revealing that several officers with a history of complaints were training new recruits. The Chicago Reporter found that complaints by white residents were more likely to be upheld than complaints by African-Americans, and that Chicago’s early intervention system is almost entirely ineffectual: Only one officer out of 162 who received 10 or more misconduct complaints in the past four years was enrolled in the program. 

FiveThirtyEight published an in-depth analysis of the data, concluding that while complaints do not prove culpability, patterns in the data (such as officers who receive higher incidents of complaints relative to other officers on the same beat) could be used to predict which officers would become “bad apples.” 



The database was launched shortly before another FOIA case prompted the city to release video footage of Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on November 25, 2015, which directly contradicted the official account of what happened on the night of the murder. Van Dyke, who was indicted for McDonald’s murder, had 19 citizen complaints and two misconduct lawsuits against him when he shot MacDonald.

Those events swept The Invisible Institute, along with the data it had collected, directly into the public eye at a time when political unrest regarding police accountability was rising. In Chicago, as with many other cities, it’s become clear that even if police misconduct is perpetrated by only a few cops, it’s institutional attitudes and policies of protecting malfeasant officers that can be the real problem.

“What we’re really contending with right now–not just in Chicago, but across the country–is an acknowledgement and a recognition of what the norm looks like,” says Kalven. “This isn’t a departure of the norm. There hasn’t been a spike in police shootings nationally.” 

The Citizen Data team says it’s just getting started. The team is small with only six members (who John Bracken, the vice president of Media Innovation at the Knight Foundation, described as “data nerds, journalists, and Jamie Kalven”), but it contracts and collaborates with others to bolster its skill set. It was one of 17 winners of the Knight News Challenge on Data announced this week, eight of whom will receive more than $200,000 to build out their projects.



With the money from the Knight grant, the team hopes to make the data more easily accessible to the community and increase outreach to journalists and community members. The Institute plans to expand to other jurisdictions; add relevant datasets to the database like income, housing, and demographic data; provide additional levels of insight; and create a form through which citizens can register complaints. Another idea is to create a safe place for members of law enforcement to share information. 

“Right now, the reality is in the Chicago Police Department, you just have to be absolutely heroic to be a whistleblower,” says Kalven.

The team also expects to receive police misconduct records going back to 1967, “a huge data dump” according to Kalven, which will open up new areas for investigation. The police union in Chicago is disputing the release of the records, arguing that it violates a provision in its contract to destroy misconduct complaints after seven years, but Kalven is confident his side will prevail. (Misconduct reports from the last four years are not in dispute.)

In these days of big data and open government (or is it big government and open data?), transparency is too often a buzzword. The Institute’s work thus far points to the power of true transparency when it’s in service of a particular mission and a particular community. No one in Chicago is naive to the challenges of dismantling an unjust system, but every win is a move in the right direction. This week, it’s the people of Chicago who’ve won. 


For more on the FOIA win that opened up police misconduct data in Illinois: 

How an activist journalist’s commitment to a poor Chicago community led to a big FOIA win


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Chava Gourarie is a freelance writer based in New York and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @ChavaRisa