2018 in Review

A Letter from Jamie Kalven


In these grim times, assaults on democratic norms and institutions have done incalculable damage. At the same time, they have opened up ground for resistance and made visible possible paths toward systemic change. At the Invisible Institute, we understand our mission in light of that paradox. We practice journalism as intervention and judge our work less by measures of individual achievement than by the contribution it makes to the larger struggle for democratic renewal. 

Viewed from that perspective, 2018 has been an extraordinary year. Among the highlights: 

Autopsy of Laquan McDonald

Autopsy of Laquan McDonald

A chapter in Chicago history that began with our reporting on the police killing of a child named Laquan McDonald is drawing to a close. For the first time in half a century, a Chicago police officer has been convicted of an on-duty murder. Several officers have been prosecuted for conspiring to cover up the murder, and others face termination for their roles in fabricating a false narrative about the incident. We continue to report on this story and have co-produced a film documentary on the case that will be released next year.

First brought to public attention by our reporting, the Watts scandal—so named after Sergeant Ronald Watts, the leader of a team of corrupt officers operating in Chicago public housing—continues to expand. Fifty individuals framed by the Watts team have now been exonerated. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has publicly apologized to the exonerees and has directed that ten officers in the Watts cohort who remain on the force are not to be called as witnesses in any Cook County criminal cases because of “concerns about their credibility.”

Demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes Photo by Patricia Evans

Demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes
Photo by Patricia Evans

In August, the Invisible Institute released the 2.0 version of the Citizens Police Data Project. The product of more than two years of work by our team of designers, programmers, and data analysts, CPDP 2.0 was made possible by a legal victory over the Fraternal Order of Police, which had sought to limit the scope of Kalven v. Chicago, the precedent establishing that police misconduct files are public information. CPDP now includes more than a quarter of a million misconduct allegations and more than 22,000 individual Chicago police officers over a 50-year period. We have also added additional data sets, including officer-involved shootings and use of force histories.

With the launch of CPDP 2.0 and a series of companion articles on takeaways from the data, we inaugurated a publishing partnership with The Intercept under the title “The Chicago Police Files.” This partnership will enable us, in effect, to develop our own magazine on The Intercept’s international platform. At the same time, we have established a team within the Invisible Institute to work on an array of on-the-ground outreach, engagement, and distribution strategies to ensure that our work reaches those living in Chicago neighborhoods most affected by unconstitutional policing. 

The Chicago Police Files    on  The Intercept

The Chicago Police Files on The Intercept

Convening with WITNESS Photo by Patricia Evans

Convening with WITNESS
Photo by Patricia Evans

In July, together with the human rights organization WITNESS, the Invisible Institute hosted a two-day convening that brought together journalists, data analysts, legal experts, activists, and archivists to explore a range of questions regarding the collection, analysis, and sharing of police misconduct data. The gathering engendered new relationships, promising collaborations, and a sense of common purpose in developing strategies and best practices for an emerging field.

As always, much of the most important work of the Invisible Institute is not yet publicly visible. This includes immersive inquiry via our Youth/Police Project and other initiatives into the lived experience of those living under the American form of apartheid justice; the process of transforming prisoner letters from the archives of innocence projects into searchable data; curation of the legal archive of police torture in Chicago; and production of an investigative podcast series in which the central voice is that of a bereaved mother investigating the murder of her son.
This is the sort of work your support helps makes possible. 
I attended the trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke for the murder of Laquan McDonald. The moment when the guilty verdict was read aloud in the hushed courtroom was extraordinary. While it would be a mistake to read too much into this one case—the conviction of a single officer does not transform the institutions that enabled and then attempted to hide his crime—it would also be a mistake to minimize its importance. The outcome of the trial nourishes the hope that, if we rise to the occasion, real and enduring change is possible.

Reflecting on the trial, I returned, as I often do, to the poetry of Seamus Heaney. In “The Cure at Troy,” Heaney writes:

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime 
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

This is such a moment. We must make the most of it.




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