Jamie Kalven on the release of the Department of Justice report by Maira Khwaja

On Friday, the Department of Justice released the report on its 13-month investigation of the Chicago Police Department. It found that the CPD engages in a pattern or practice of using force, including deadly force, in violation of the Constitution. It attributed this to "systemic deficiencies in training and accountability." Released on the eve of Donald Trump's ascension to the White House, much of the commentary since has focused on the dim prospects for vigorous federal oversight of the city's police department by a DOJ under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Reading the report over the weekend, I found that this unsettling context enhances the power, eloquence and urgency of the document. The report now transcends its legal function as the basis for negotiating a consent decree with the city. Formally known as a "findings letter," it is best seen, under present circumstances, as just that: a letter to Chicagoans reporting on the results of a thorough biopsy of their police department. I urge you to read it in that light.

It is a remarkable document that combines analytic clarity with narrative texture to describe some of the deep-seated institutional pathologies that have contributed to the current crisis of the civil order in our city. As an investigative journalist who has written extensively about police abuse and impunity, I am deeply impressed by the reach of the investigation and the force of the presentation. I will return to it often.

The federal government has now definitively acknowledged what those living in the black and brown neighborhoods most affected by abusive policing have known for generations. And it has described in detail the mechanisms by which that knowledge, expressed in the form of citizen complaints of police abuse, has been disregarded and, in effect, made to disappear. 

At the same time, the report addresses the concerns of police officers. It speaks to the failure of the CPD to invest in its personnel by providing adequate training and necessary resources. It also addresses a major concern of the rank and file: the way clout rather than merit governs promotions. Reforms will only succeed, the authors of the report communicate via their tone and distribution of emphasis, if they meet the needs of demoralized police officers as well as aggrieved citizens.

As we absorb the report, it is important to be clear about critical issues that lie outside its scope. It was never intended to be a comprehensive blueprint for reform. From the start, the scope of the DOJ investigation was limited. Among the areas that are not addressed—or only touched on—are false arrest; police in schools; the operation of the code of silence understood not simply as a peer-to-peer phenomenon but as coercion by supervisory personnel; and the relationship of the CPD to the mayor, the city law office, and the states attorney.

Beyond those issues, Black Lives Matter activists demand that we consider the alternative uses that could be made of the massive resources allocated to the police, inviting us to enlarge our understanding of the necessary conditions for public safety in our communities.

If the DOJ report is to be a living document going forward, we need to study it, build on it and critically engage with it. Whether or not the process of negotiating a consent decree gets traction, the report has altered the political and legal landscape in Chicago. It will be a powerful tool in the hands of the civil rights bar, the Chicago inspector general and other change agents. 

But it is incumbent on us as citizens to see that its recommendations are implemented. If we have learned anything over the last 13 months since the Laquan McDonald implosion, it is that the city's political leadership acts when citizens insist that they do. As our outgoing president has often reminded us, most recently in his farewell address last week, the powers and responsibilities of citizenship are not self-executing. 

It's up to us.

“DOJ report a powerful tool—in the right hands” appeared in Crain’s Chicago Business, January 17, 2017

Code of Silence by Maira Khwaja

Today The Intercept published a 20,000-word, four-part investigation titled “Code of Silence.” This consuming project has been for me an extraordinary education regarding the inner workings of the Chicago Police Department.  My principal source—Officer Shannon Spalding—has a rare ability to describe the “code of silence” not as a vague culture but as a set of institutional mechanisms central to the operation of the CPD.  We are all in her debt. For if we are to make the most of the current opening for reform, we must have a clear diagnosis of the underlying pathologies that need to be addressed.  Hence the importance of stories such as the one Shannon has enabled me to tell.


October 6, 2016

In praise of a messy police reform process by Jamie Kalven

In December, Mayor Rahm Emanuel addressed the City Council in the aftermath of the political implosion precipitated by the Laquan McDonald case. In a remarkable speech, he acknowledged the institutional conditions that give rise to police abuse and committed his administration to a sustained process of reform.

Addressing a shaken city, he evoked a crisis of the civil order that demands we break with business as usual. What is required, he suggested, is that we undertake a process of becoming a different kind of society—one, as he put it, in which a black child would be treated no differently by police than the mayor's own children.

Since uttering those words, the mayor has not always projected effective leadership. Frequent wobbles and pivots often have left him looking reactive and defensive. And he has not been good at telling the story of reform in such a way that the public can clearly see particular moves as elements of a coherent larger strategy.

Yet the city has in fact made significant progress over the last 10 months. The mayor's task force on police accountability proved independent and exceeded expectations with a report that was searching in its diagnosis and detailed in its prescriptions. Civil society groups—religious, legal, grass-roots—have entered vigorously into the process. And the walls of official secrecy that have long impeded effective police reform have continued to crumble.

The process has been messy and raucous, free-form and ad hoc, as citizen energies animated by outrage over the Laquan McDonald case have sought to find their footing in the public forum and to establish a robust, inclusive democratic process of policy formation.

That dynamic arrived at a critical juncture this week, as the City Council held hearings on Emanuel's proposed ordinance for replacing the Independent Police Review Authority with a new agency to be called the Civil Office of Police Accountability.

Replacement of IPRA was a central recommendation of the police accountability task force, which called for the creation of a new agency that would investigate police misconduct complaints with rigor, transparency and civilian oversight.

At first, the mayor balked. Then he embraced the recommendation. At the same time, moving on parallel tracks, several citizen groups set to work crafting designs for a new investigative agency. The upshot is that there are four draft ordinances, including the mayor's, that offer legislative blueprints for replacing IPRA.

When the proposed ordinances are arrayed against each other, several open issues emerge. These include whether the agency will have secure funding insulated from political pressures, whether it will have its own independent legal counsel (as opposed to relying on the City Law Office), how transparent it will be and by what mechanisms citizen oversight will be realized.

These issues are not details; they are not loose ends. If not adequately addressed, each has the potential to subvert an otherwise well-designed plan. They demand the full attention of the City Council, lest we repeat the history of IPRA being created by ordinance in 2007 to replace the discredited Office of Professional Standards—a "reform" that proved little more than a change in acronyms.

Assuming the mayor currently has the votes to enact his ordinance, business as usual at this juncture would be for his aldermanic allies to shepherd it through to a vote with as little debate as possible. We must insist on another kind of process—one that allows for a full assessment of the relative merits of different approaches to the open issues.

Only a process that itself exemplifies the qualities we seek to institutionalize—transparency, accountability, rigor—will generate legitimacy for the institutional reforms it yields.

As important as it is that we get the design of the new investigative agency right, this occasion has implications beyond itself. If we are to realize the historic opening for fundamental change born of the Laquan McDonald tragedy, then we must renew our democratic practices. In a very real sense, process is reform.


— Jamie Kalven

Youth Police/Project Director Chaclyn Hunt Talks Transparency, Police Accountability and Youth Engagement on Chicago Tonight by Darryl Holliday

Click the image above to watch the full Chicago Tonight video also featuring Jedidiah Brown, a pastor and community activist who founded the Young Leaders Alliance; Aislinn Pulley, a leader and organizer of Black Lives Matter Chicago and Chicago Police Department spokesperson Robin Robinson. 

Click the image above to watch the full Chicago Tonight video also featuring Jedidiah Brown, a pastor and community activist who founded the Young Leaders Alliance; Aislinn Pulley, a leader and organizer of Black Lives Matter Chicago and Chicago Police Department spokesperson Robin Robinson. 

"In Chicago, the simmering tensions between police and minority communities reached a boiling point after the release of the shooting video of Laquan McDonald last November. So where do law enforcement and the communities they're sworn to serve start to heal and end years – if not decades – of suspicion, antagonism and violence? We look at solutions to end the mistrust and contentious relations between minority communities and law enforcement." –WTTW   

Chaclyn Hunt is an attorney and the director of the Invisible Institute Youth/Police Project, which interviews black youth about their experiences with Chicago police. She coordinated a Youth/Police Conference at the University of Chicago Law School last year to report on youth experience with police.

Earlier this year, Hunt co-authored a working paper on Chicago police practices from the perspective of young black people called, “They Have all the Power: Youth/Police Encounters on Chicago’s South Side.” The paper details the ongoing work of the Youth/Police Project.

Jamie Kalven's Acceptance Remarks for the Ridenhour Courage Prize [+VIDEO] by Darryl Holliday

JAMIE KALVEN:  Thank you, Wes. My first reaction when Randy called to tell me I'd been selected to receive the 2016 Ridenhour Courage Prize was to recall a Robert Benchley line my father was very fond of. "You must be thinking of the other Mozart." [laughter] My second reaction was at once to be honored and humbled to have my name linked with that of Ron Ridenhour and to find myself in the company of past recipients of the prize.

My third, and enduring, reaction is profound gratitude for this acknowledgement of past work that serves as an inspiration for the work that lies ahead. When I first stood at the site of the Laquan McDonald shooting several weeks after the incident, I couldn't have imagined standing at this podium 16 months later. Nor could I have imagined the extraordinary and mysterious process by which Laquan McDonald's story has become a public narrative that bears comparison with that of another child of Chicago, Emmett Till. The story has broken through into the moral imagination, providing an avenue for deeper understanding of systemic conditions that give rise to police abuse and impunity. The crime, the execution of a child on the streets of Chicago, is shocking.

Jamie Kalven, a journalist and human rights activist, who has long reported on police abuse and impunity in Chicago, is the 2016 recipient of The Ridenhour Courage Prize.

Equally shocking has been the institutional response to that crime. While the boy was bleeding out on the street, the machinery of denial went into motion. Evidence was destroyed, witnesses were intimidated, police reports were falsified, public information was withheld from the public. And ultimately, a $5 million settlement was entered into by the city with the family of Laquan McDonald on the condition that the now-famous video not be released.

For 13 months, at every level and at every turn, city officials maintained a narrative about the incident they knew to be untrue. The term code of silence evokes something essential; the coerced silence of police officers who don't report misconduct by fellow officers for fear of reprisal. And equally, the silence of abused citizens who believe they have no redress.

Yet, the term is also something of a misnomer. For the larger phenomena is not a matter of silence, it's a matter of narrative control. The code is best seen as a set of tools for enforcing that control. To an extraordinary degree, in the wake of the political upheaval precipitated by the McDonald case, the City of Chicago has lost control of the narrative. [applause] This has created an historic opportunity for real and enduring reform.

As Danielle noted, last week a task force on police accountability appointed by the mayor, issued its report, a sweeping indictment of entrenched racism within the department and a detailed blueprint for reform. The report states, and I'll quote this extraordinary language again, "The police in Chicago have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color." That's from an official body in Chicago.

Racism is foundational. Issues of police accountability are embedded in the great unfinished business of American life, the blood knot of race. If reform is to run true, we must construct a path forward akin to South Africa emerging from apartheid that leads over time to a different kind of society.

It won't be easy. While this may prove to be a transformative moment, there are no transformative remedies. Rather, there are an array of concrete measures, reforms, interventions, none of them transformative in themselves, that may in the aggregate begin to change systems and cultures.

It's yet to be seen whether we'll be able to rise to the occasion. If we are to do so, we must resist the tendency, in itself a form of denial, to rush past diagnosis to prescription. While it's imperative to implement particular reforms as soon as possible, it's also critically important to sustain the process of diagnosis, of truth telling, of public acknowledgement.

The knowledge necessary to fix the system exists within the system, but it's atomized, scattered, divided from itself. In recent years in Chicago, we've broken through official secrecy and established the principle that police misconduct files are public information. We thus have unprecedented access to police disciplinary data. It's equally important, though, to access information on the ground in the communities most affected by abusive policing, and equally to create conditions such that conscientious police officer do not have to risk everything in order to report misconduct by fellow officers.

This process of public acknowledgement is exemplified by the McDonald case. We would not know the name Laquan McDonald were it not for the civic courage of two individuals who must, for the moment, themselves remain unnamed; a whistleblower in law enforcement who reached out with a tip about the case and a civilian witness, who despite his fears of police reprisals, told me what he had seen. I dedicate this unexpected and heartening award to them. Thank you.

Two Invisible Institute Staffers On Deck for FOIAfest 2016 by Darryl Holliday


Come learn from more than two dozen journalists and other experts on everything from police misconduct and politicians using private email for public business, to filing a public records request and digging through data. Invisible Institute founder, Jamie Kalven, and producer, Darryl Holliday will be featured on panels:

Jamie Kalven: How independent journalists, attorneys uncovered alleged police misconduct through FOIA at 10a, March 12

Darryl Holliday (via City Bureau): Tackling big stories with limited resources at 3p, March 12

Visit FOIAIllinois.org for a complete schedule and line-up of speakers.

Ticket are on sale now: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/fourth-annual-freedom-of-information-fest-tickets-19160206694?aff=ebrowse

  • WHAT: FOIAFest 2016
  • WHEN: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sat., March 12
  • WHERE: Loyola University Chicago’s Water Tower campus
  • *Sessions split between Lewis Towers, 820 N. Michigan Ave. (entrance is on Pearson Street) and Corboy Law Center, 25 E. Pearson St. More details to come.

COST: (breakfast and lunch included)

  • $5 for students
  • $15 for Chicago Headline Club members
  • $20 for non-members

FOIAFest is generously supported by the Chicago Headline Club, Loyola University Chicago and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Darryl Holliday Profiles "The New Black Power" in Chicago Magazine by Darryl Holliday

Invisible Institute producer Darryl Holliday profiles Chicago's Black Lives Matter movement through one of its most prominent activist organizations, the Black Youth Project 100. The Chicago magazine piece is featured in the March issue and online here, with artwork from our partner, Illustrated Press.

The night of December 9, 2015, was a particularly tense one at the Chicago Police Department headquarters on Michigan and 35th, just south of the Loop. That afternoon, hundreds of protesters had marched up the Magnificent Mile, stopping at intersections to disrupt traffic, as they had several times since the November 24 release of the now-infamous Laquan McDonald video. Earlier in the day, Mayor Rahm Emanuel had publicly apologized for the shooting death of the 17-year-old at the hands of a police officer, but that acknowledgment only seemed to fuel the outrage.
Now, as the Chicago Police Board began its monthly public meeting, a standing-room-only crowd filled the first-floor auditorium. The McDonald shooting was top of mind for many on hand. Some in the audience refused to sit quietly, resorting to chants of “Sixteen shots! Stop the cover-up!”

Invisible Institute Wins Knight News Challenge on Data by Darryl Holliday

CHICAGO -- The Invisible Institute, a journalism production company on the South Side of Chicago, has been named one of 17 winners of the Knight News Challenge on Data, which asked for ideas that make data work for individuals and communities. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the nation’s leading funder of journalism and media innovation, awarded the creative nonprofit $400K to continue to develop its Citizens Police Data Project -- the largest interactive database of police misconduct. Knight Foundation made the announcement today at a convening at Civic Hall in New York.

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Chicago After Laquan McDonald: Rebuilding the Trust by Darryl Holliday

Jamie Kalven was on a panel of journalists and policing professionals January 7, 2016, at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. The conversation, “Chicago After Laquan McDonald: Rebuilding the Trust,” included retired St. Louis Chief of Police Daniel Isom, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell and Kate Grossman as moderator.

See the full conversation below:

Chicago's police crisis falls on all of us by Rajiv Sinclair

Mayor Rahm Emanuel listens as aldermen speak in favor of the resolution to create a task force looking into police misconduct, at the Chicago City Council on Dec. 9, 2015. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel listens as aldermen speak in favor of the resolution to create a task force looking into police misconduct, at the Chicago City Council on Dec. 9, 2015. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel stands at the center of a crisis that threatens his administration, his political viability and his legacy.

Revelations about the city's handling of the 2014 fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald have provoked charges of a cover-up. A rising chorus is calling for the mayor's resignation. The collapse of public confidence is such that his every act and utterance is interpreted in the most negative possible light. And steps he has taken thus far to address the situation — firing the police superintendent and the head of the agency that investigates police shootings, appointing a task force to recommend reforms, embracing federal oversight of the Chicago Police Department and making an impassioned mea culpa speech to the Chicago City Council — have done little to quell public outrage.

Can the mayor rebound, restore a measure of public confidence and effectively address the institutional conditions that enable and shield police misconduct? Speaking as a journalist who has reported extensively on police abuse and impunity in Chicago, repeatedly sued the CPD under the Freedom of Information Act and played a role in bringing the McDonald case to light, I hope the mayor can rise to the challenge.

In 2008, in the midst of the cascading collapse of financial institutions, Emanuel, then President Barack Obama's chief of staff, famously remarked, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

Less often quoted is the second part of that remark: The reason you don't want to waste a crisis, he said, is that it presents "the opportunity for us to do things you could not before."

What we are confronting in Chicago are systemic conditions that have long existed. The institutional responses to the killing of Laquan McDonald — the operation of the code of silence, protracted investigation as a form of cover-up, the use of settlements to avoid public and judicial scrutiny, etc. — are not departures from the norm. They are the norm.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel addressed city council Wednesday, saying he takes responsibility for what happened in regards to the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

The Emanuel administration did not create the dysfunctional culture within the CPD. But having inherited it, the administration accommodated itself to that culture and defended it, culminating in its deplorable handling of the McDonald case. It has a lot to answer for. Yet the political reality remains that, in the absence of a galvanizing crisis, it would have required extraordinary leadership to take on these deep pathologies.

Now the mayor's political survival hinges on making the most of the opportunity "to do things you could not do before" created by the crisis that has engulfed his administration.

In his speech to the City Council on Wednesday, he described this crisis as "a defining moment on the issues of crime and policing — and the even larger issues of truth, justice and race." He admitted that there is a code of silence within the Police Department that must be addressed. Most important, he acknowledged the reality of residents of the city who have reason to distrust the police, and he sounded the theme that police accountability is essential to effective law enforcement.

The mayor's description of deep, systemic problems within the CPD is in sharp contrast to his statement on Nov. 23 that only "one individual needs to be held accountable" in the Laquan McDonald case, Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot him. And Emanuel's acknowledgment of the code of silence directly contradicts the arguments by city lawyers who sought unsuccessfully in 2012 to have a federal judge vacate a jury verdict that included the finding that a code of silence exists within the CPD.

Only through his actions in coming days can the mayor give full credence to his words and demonstrate that he has truly broken with the past. The public and press must demand on a daily basis that he live up to those words. At the same time, it is important to recognize that we are all implicated in these conditions. The problems do not exist apart from us — from a press too often satisfied to publish the police blotter, from a passive City Council, from a citizenry conditioned to tolerate the intolerable.

We thus find ourselves in Chicago in the early stages of something akin to a truth and reconciliation process. A necessary condition for realizing this historic opportunity is public acknowledgment of the realities. Mayor Emanuel's challenge is to facilitate such an accounting and at the same time to withstand public outrage at what is revealed.

While federal intervention is welcome, it is important that it not pre-empt this unfolding political and social dynamic. For what is ultimately at stake at this pivotal moment in our history is a precious opportunity to progress from a society that tolerates apartheid justice toward one that guarantees equal treatment under the law.

— Jamie Kalven
December 10th, 2015
Chicago Tribune Op-ed

Jamie Kalven at the Chicago Urban League by Darryl Holliday

Jamie Kalven spoke at the Chicago Urban League for “Truth and Justice for All: Advancing Police and Community Accountability” panel, which examined the need for improved policing practices by the Chicago Police Department (CPD) following the deaths of Laquan McDonald and Ronald Johnson. 

On December 9, the Chicago Urban League (CUL) brought together leading voices on social justice and legal issues for a critical discussion on how to reform the CPD and why reform is necessary. Kalven was joined by the following speakers:

Lorenzo Davis, former Chicago Police Department investigator
Craig Futterman, Clinical Professor of Law, The University of Chicago, and Founder, Civil Rights Accountability Project  
Trina Reynolds, Black Youth Project 100
Shari Runner, Interim President & CEO, Chicago Urban League
Paul Strauss, Co-Director of Litigation for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Director of the CLC’s Employment Opportunities Project
Rufus Williams, President and CEO of BBF Family Services

Invisible Institute Wins Sidney Award by Darryl Holliday

We're happy to announce that the Invisible Institute has won the December 2015 Sidney Award for the Citizens Police Data Project (CPDP), an interactive database of 56,000 complaint records for more than 8,500 Chicago police officers.

The Sidney is awarded monthly to an outstanding piece of journalism that appeared in the prior month and includes past winners such as The New York TimesProPublicaBuzzFeed and many others.

Many thanks to The Sidney Hillman Foundation — we'll eagerly await our bottle of union-made wine.