Yesterday the City of Chicago provided me with the first batch of documents at issue in the recently settled freedom of information case, Kalven v. Chicago. I immediately uploaded them to the Invisible Institute website where they are now universally available. After seven years of litigation during which the Kalven legal team argued that documents of this nature are public, it gives me deep satisfaction today to complete the process of making them so.
The effort to secure these documents began in 2007. They had been produced by the City under a protective order in Bond v. Utreras, a federal civil rights case that arose out of my reporting from Stateway Gardens, a high-rise public housing development that has since been demolished. I intervened in the case and requested that the protective order be lifted so the documents could be made public. Judge Joan Lefkow ruled in my favor. The City appealed. Ultimately, it prevailed in the United States Court of Appeals in 2009.
I then sought the same documents--as well as additional documents produced in another civil rights case, Moore v. Chicago--under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. On March 10 of this year, the Illinois appellate court held in Kalven v. Chicago that documents bearing on allegations of police abuse are public information. On July 11, the Emanuel administration announced it would not appeal Kalven and outlined the procedures it has adopted to implement the decision.
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.
There are five "repeater lists":
- List of 662 Chicago police officers with more than ten misconduct complaints between May 2001 and May 2006, produced by the City in the course of civil discovery in Bond v. Utreras.
- List of officers with more than ten complaints between 2001 and 2006 who at any time during that period were assigned to Public Housing South (Unit 715), produced by the City in Bond v. Utreras.
- List of officers with more than ten complaints between 2001 and 2006 who participated in any of the Chicago Police Department's "early intervention" programs, produced by the City in Bond v. Utreras.*
- List of Chicago police officers with more than five misconduct complaints from May 2002 to December 2008, produced by the City in Moore v. Chicago.
- List of Chicago police officers with more than five excessive force complaints from May 2002 to December 2008, produced by the City in Moore v. Chicago.
The Bond lists were the focus of intense public interest in 2007, when the City sought a stay of Judge Lefkow's order pending appeal. A headline in the Chicago Sun-Times asked: "What Are They Hiding?"
The answer, seven years later, is that they were hiding the names of the officers on these lists. Now those names are public. What follows from this? Why does it matter?
Although six years have passed since the most recent complaints covered, the lists retain great currency. In combination with other information in the public domain, they will reveal patterns of alleged police criminality and raise questions about why the department didn't identify those patterns and intervene to address them. They are, in short, of great diagnostic value for the purpose of assessing the City's systems for investigating and disciplining police misconduct.
The lists will also disclose officers with large numbers of complaints who remain on the force, working in Chicago neighborhoods and continuing to amass complaints for the same patterns of abuse.
And for those falsely incarcerated due to abusive police practices, the lists will in some instances provide a tool to challenge their convictions.
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. It is precisely because of the critical role they play in our society that the police must be held to high standards of accountability and must, like other public officials, sometimes endure public criticism they feel is unfair.
I have heard from officers who are distressed that their inclusion on a repeater list publicly brands them as "rogue cops." I have no doubt the lists include honorable, effective officers. They also include criminals with badges who have been able to operate with impunity and do great harm to those they are sworn to protect and to their department, because of the deficiencies of the City's system for investigating complaints of police abuse.
One example among many: a group of Special Operations Section officers engaged for a period of years in a pattern of falsely arresting, illegally searching, and robbing people. A recent analysis of CPD data in Padilla v. Chicago demonstrated that the probability of any of those officers facing discipline as a result of the many complaints filed against them alleging such crimes was less than one in a thousand.
As Judge Lefkow observed in Bond, the public can be trusted to recognize that complaints of police abuse are allegations and not proof of wrongdoing. The real problem resides not with transparency but with the City's broken disciplinary system. The solution is not for the police to cling to a veil of secrecy unworthy of their critical role in our society. It is to demand a more rigorous and credible accountability regime, so that a finding of "not sustained" or "exonerated" actually means something.
The Legal Team
Although I am privileged to have my name linked to Kalven v. Chicago and the principle it affirms, the decision is really the achievement of a remarkable collaborative effort by lawyers and law students over the better part of a decade.
This journey began for me eight years ago with a phone call from Samantha Liskow of Loevy & Loevy, who floated the intriguing idea of trying to penetrate official secrecy by challenging the protective orders under which police misconduct files are produced in the course of discovery in civil right cases. Jon Loevy and Samantha generously agreed to represent me pro bono in the Bond intervention--a commitment the firm steadfastly honored, as the case extended over years and became ever more demanding. There is not a page in the many briefs we drafted in the course of this long, complicated litigation--first Bond, then Kalven--that does not reflect Sam's intelligence, industry, and passion.
Professor Craig Futterman of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School first came down to visit me at Stateway Gardens in 2000. We have been working together ever since. Our collaboration has included dozens of law students, many of whom participated in this effort; among them, Italia Patti and Saul Cohen, who skillfully argued the case before the Illinois appellate court. The legal resources made available to me--and to some of the poorest, most vulnerable citizens of the city--by the Mandel Clinic have been of immense value. I am equally grateful for the richness of my ongoing conversation with Craig. For many years now, we have been daily engaged in a joint effort to better understand patterns of police abuse and impunity in order to contribute to their reform. The intellectual generosity that animates our partnership has enriched my work as a journalist beyond measure.
In the Kalven phase of the litigation, the Mandel Clinic-Loevy & Loevy team was joined by Flint Taylor and Ben Elson of the People's Law Office. Beyond PLO's substantial contributions to our legal strategy, the firm's long and noble history of representing men tortured by Chicago police under Commander Jon Burge was a constant reminder of the gravity of the harms that official secrecy enables.
The Next Chapter
With the release of these documents, one chapter ends and another begins. The challenge is to make effective use of the information we now have access to. Toward that end, the Invisible Institute is working with a number of partners to develop a police data center. Building on the collaborative relationships among civil rights lawyers and journalists that have brought us to this point, the data center will serve as a repository for police misconduct files and related documents. By sharing and organizing such materials, we will create an infrastructure that will, we hope, support an ongoing process of reform. The documents uploaded today are the first bricks in that structure.
July 30, 2014