Citizens Police Data Project is largest known interactive repository of police complaint records
CHICAGO — Today the Invisible Institute, a journalism production company, launched an online data project of misconduct complaint records for more than 8,500 Chicago Police officers — the most expansive public database of its kind. Designed to serve as a national model of transparency and accountability in law enforcement, the Citizens Police Data Project is the product of a more than decade-long collaboration with the University of Chicago Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic.
“Transparency doesn’t happen on its own. It’s up to us as citizens to make it happen and address abuses when they occur,” said Jamie Kalven, founder of the Invisible Institute and the plaintiff in Kalven v. City of Chicago, a watershed court decision in Illinois that made police misconduct records public in 2014. “Information is key to our ability to do that.”
Analysis of 56,370 misconduct complaints reveals that less than 3% of allegations lead to disciplinary action, with even lower rates for officers charged with high numbers of complaints. The data also shows a significant pattern of racial bias, with black Chicagoans accounting for over 60% of total complaints, and less than 25% of sustained complaints.
Other findings, based on complaints available from the periods of 2001-2008 and March 2011 through March 2015, include:
Even when misconduct by an officer is proven, 85% of disciplinary actions are zero to five days of suspension.
Punishment for proven offenses is not aligned with the offense. The average discipline for administrative violations, such as having secondary employment, was 16.5 days. Meanwhile, the average punishment for proven rape or sex offenses by an officer was six days.
Most officers, around 80% of the total force, receive zero to four complaints over the course of their law enforcement careers, while approximately 90% receive zero to 10 complaints.
Officers with more than 10 complaints, “repeat” officers, representing 10% of officers, received 30% of all complaints, four times the amount of misconduct complaints as the rest of the force. Repeat officers have an even lower rate of “sustained” findings - 4% versus the rest of the department, with only 0.05% (1 in 2,000) of these complaints resulting in a substantial penalty.
Black officers are disproportionately found guilty of an offense and suffer higher punishments as a result. Black officers with sustained findings are punished more than twice as often as white officers.
“To be clear, this information does not tell us whether an officer is abusive or not,” Kalven said. “But what it does tell us is complaints are not being properly addressed, and until now, the public hasn’t been given the department’s own evidence of that.”
The Invisible Institute obtained the majority of the public data through Freedom of Information Act requests and civil rights litigation, resulting in three major pools of abuse allegations for the following date ranges: May 2001 to May 2006, for officers with more than 10 complaints; May 2002 to December 2008, for officers with more than five excessive force complaints; and March 2011 to September 2015, for all officers. The Chicago-based civic technology company DataMade participated in early analyses of the data.
In a bold move for open government, earlier this year the City of Chicago agreed to turn over its full list of misconduct complaints for all officers, dating back to 1967, to the Invisible Institute, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. However, access to this information was blocked by a temporary injunction secured by the Fraternal Order of Police that bars the City from releasing all but the last four years of data. The FOP argues that release of the information would violate the terms of its contract with the City. The City appealed, and the Invisible Institute filed an amicus brief in support of the City’s position.
“A great deal is at stake here,” said University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, founder of the Mandel Clinic’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project. “More than a hundred people remain in prison who have charged that they were tortured by former Commander Jon Burge and his henchmen. If the union prevails, the documentation of their torture would go up in smoke.”
Meanwhile, the Citizens Police Data Project launches alongside a collaboration with City Bureau, a new neighborhood newsroom and journalism training lab aimed at regenerating civic media within Chicago’s historically disenfranchised and underreported neighborhoods. The first cycle of this new program will train young South and West side reporters to cover issues of policing and police misconduct alongside veteran and working journalists. Among the Invisible Institute’s other initiatives, in partnership with the Mandel Clinic, over the last two years the Youth and Police Project has been talking with teenagers on the South Side of Chicago about their experiences of police.
The Invisible Institute is a nonprofit Chicago-based journalistic production company that works to enhance the capacity of civil society to hold public institutions accountable. Toward that end, we develop strategies to expand and operationalize transparency. We seek to make visible perspectives too often excluded from public discourse. And we develop social interventions designed to leverage necessary reforms. Among the tools we employ are human rights documentation, investigative reporting, civil rights litigation, the curating of public information, conceptual art projects, and the orchestration of difficult public conversations.