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A nonprofit and a daily dig deep into Chicago’s handling of police misconduct allegations

By Jackie Spinner, CJR

Editor's Note:

This article first ran on June 28, 2016 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.

A pair of investigations that arrived just days apart last week—one from a small nonprofit, the other by a leading daily—brought new scrutiny to the way the city of Chicago handles allegations of police misconduct. The reports, each based on an analysis of hundreds of lawsuits, highlight the soaring cost of alleged misconduct to taxpayers, the city’s failure to track patterns of abuse, and the extent to which officials try to keep crucial information under wraps.

One of the investigations, a remarkable effort by The Chicago Reporter, found that the city spent more than $210 million for settlements or judgments stemming from police misconduct lawsuits between 2012 and 2015, borrowing money to pay the tab at a time when the city already is struggling with crippling debt. The nonprofit newsroom’s report also emphasized that the city does not analyze the lawsuits for trends, something other major cities do in order to address police misconduct and curb legal costs.

“I have no doubt that they do see these patterns,” said Jonah Newman, who led the 18-month investigation for the Reporter. “Of course they see them. You can’t work on a lot of these and not see them. It’s a failure what they’re not doing systemically and with the data tools that exist these days.

Just days after the Reporter published its story and an accompanying interactive database, the Chicago Tribune rolled out its own significant investigation into the city’s handling of police lawsuits. Reporters Stacy St. Clair, Jeff Coen, and Jennifer Smith Richards reviewed 445 federal civil rights suits filed since Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011. In nearly one in five of the cases, they found, a federal judge ordered the city to turn over information or records that it had tried to keep from plaintiffs. In five cases, a judge took the unusual step of sanctioning the city for withholding evidence. (The Trib also got an extended interview with a top city lawyer, who “rejected any implication of wrongdoing” by the legal department, the paper reported.)

The Tribune’s story focused on the city’s approach to private litigation—but it underscores how difficult it can be for the press and public to get information from the city, especially about police conduct, in any context.

“The Tribune and other news organizations have had a lot of problems getting the city to give us information that we feel we are owed under the Freedom of Information Act,” said Mark Jacob, the paper’s associate managing editor for metro news. “We are really only seeking to get the city to follow the law.”

The recent reporting is the latest in a wave of scrutiny for the police department, which continues as the city grapples with the fallout from the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Dash-cam video of the 2014 shooting was itself the subject of a FOIA dispute, which the city lost in court late last year. The video’s release brought renewed attention to the issue of police accountability.

“Laquan McDonald kind of broke everything open,” said Jacob, theTribune editor, who added that Chicago is facing a “take-stock moment.”

That’s not to say, of course, that there had been no aggressive reporting of police abuses before now. The Reporter’s database of lawsuit settlements calls to mind a separate database of police misconduct complaints, launched last year with records obtained by the Invisible Institute following years of litigation.

Newman began working on the project as soon as he was hired at theReporter in October 2014. The first step was to review the list of all legal settlements and judgments the city pays each year, which is available online. The online information includes the name of person who received money, the value of the settlement or judgment, the department involved, and the kind of case.

“We started from there,” Newman said. “Everything else”—like the details of allegations and the officers involved—“we had to get through state and federal court records.”

It wasn’t long before patterns started to emerge, Newman said. “A lot of these cases were about false arrest, people stopped without probable cause. It took one round of entering data on these cases to read through and to comb through to see that.”

One thing that Newman found surprising—and disturbing, given the nature of many of the allegations against police—was how small most of the settlements were. Half paid out $36,000 or less. “It’s not like you’re getting a free ride or access to upper mobility with the amounts,” he said.

Still, the cases add up to a substantial cost for the city. Susan Smith Richardson, editor and publisher of the Reporter, said she had been interested for a while in making the connection between police misconduct allegations, which disproportionately affect black and Hispanic residents, and the fiscal impact for the entire city.

At times, Richardson said, “We don’t see how racial issues connect back to larger government accountability issues. Nothing provides a stronger link than looking at these settlements.”

The Reporter’s investigation was supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundation. The funding was used to pay the Institute for Nonprofit News to build the database of 655 settlements, which allows users to filter lawsuits by neighborhood and officer involved. The collaboration was a first for the two organizations.

“We thought the neighborhood piece was really important to make the data more accessible or more personable for people actually living in Chicago,” said Julia Smith, the INN lead design developer on the project. “It was a nice way to let it out. And also the ability to search by officer that was important as well because you’re able to identify the officers who show up in multiple cases.”

The ability to filter the cases should also make it easier to identify trends in the data. If a small news organization like the Reporter—with seven full-time staffers—can create a database to track patterns in allegations of police misconduct, the city ought to be able to do the same, Richardson said.

“For them,” she said, “it’s a question of vision and accountability.”

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