Invisible Institute Relaunches the Citizens Police Data Project

The long effort by the Invisible Institute to gain access to internal police files is an important chapter in the struggle for civil rights in Chicago.

Screenshot: Invisible Institute

Today the Invisible Institute, in collaboration with The Intercept, releases the Citizens Police Data Project 2.0, a public database containing the disciplinary histories of Chicago police officers. The scale of CPDP is without parallel: It includes more than 240,000 allegations of misconduct involving more than 22,000 Chicago police officers over a 50-year period. The data set is complete for the period 2000 to 2016; substantially complete back to 1988, and includes some data going back as far as the late 1960s.

The decadelong effort to gain access to this information is an important thread in the history of the struggle for civil rights under law in Chicago. It is also the story of how a style of on-the-ground reporting that Studs Terkel once characterized as “guerrilla journalism” matured into the Invisible Institute, a journalism production company based on the South Side of Chicago that has assumed the function of curating this category of public information on behalf of the public.

During the final chapter of high-rise public housing in Chicago — from 1994 until the final demolition in 2007 — I was a daily presence at Stateway Gardens, a development centrally located in the massive concentration of public housing along a three-mile stretch of South State Street. I had several roles there. I created a program of “grassroots public works” aimed at providing alternatives for ex-offenders and members of street gangs. I served as an adviser to the resident council. And with two colleagues — David Eads and Patricia Evans — I published occasional human rights reports on conditions in public housing under the title “The View From the Ground.”

The name “Invisible Institute” was first uttered in jest. Working out of a vacant, five-bedroom unit in a doomed public housing high-rise with an open-air drug market outside the door, we announced in the first issue of The View that it was published under the auspices of something called the Invisible Institute.

The name stuck. It came to refer not to a formal organization, but a loose network of collaborators and a certain style of inquiry, exploration, and relationship-building. From the start, the Invisible Institute created capacity through collaboration. A prime example is our partnership over the last 18 years with civil rights attorney Craig Futterman and his students at the Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic of the University of Chicago Law School. Over time, the Mandel Clinic brought six federal lawsuits on behalf of public housing residents abused by the police.


Diane Bond looks out from her eighth-floor apartment, over the Bridgeport neighborhood and the Illinois Institute of Technology campus, at the downtown skyline.

Photo: Patricia Evans

Among the major stories we published on The View was a 17-part series titled “Kicking the Pigeon” on the case of Diane Bond, a Stateway resident repeatedly assaulted — physically, sexually, emotionally — by a team of gang tactical officers known on the street as the “skullcap crew.”

By this point, we had been documenting individual instances of human rights abuse for several years. Having experienced in the most direct and visceral way what impunity looks like on the ground, a question formed: What sorts of institutional conditions would have to exist for the patterns of abuse we had documented to be the case? Thus began the ascent of an analytic ladder — from human rights reporting on the abuses inflicted on particular victims by particular officers to the systems that enable and shield such abuse.

In the case of Diane Bond, we pursued that question via litigation. Futterman and his students brought a civil rights suit in which the city of Chicago and the police superintendent, as well as the individual officers who committed the abuses, were named as defendants on the grounds that the city had a de facto policy of “failing to properly supervise, monitor, discipline, counsel, and otherwise control its officers” and that top police officials were aware that “these practices would result in preventable police abuse.”

This framing of the case enabled Bond’s lawyers, in the course of civil discovery, to request documents that would shed light on the Chicago Police Department’s systems for monitoring, investigating, and disciplining officers. These included not only the complaint histories of the defendant officers, but also lists of officers with more than 10 complaints over a five-year period. This information was provided under a protective order — a judicial order under which the parties can freely share information with each other, but not the public.

In 2007, as the Bond case moved toward settlement, I formally intervened before Judge Joan Lefkow and asked her to lift the protective order on the grounds that it withheld public information from the public. Two categories of documents were at issue:

  • Information about officers’ complaint histories — the nature of the complaint, co-accused officers, and the ultimate disposition of the complaint — derived from Chicago Police Department databases.
  • Investigative files — known as “complaint registers” or CRs — containing the full record of the investigations undertaken in response to complaints.

In an eloquent opinion, Lefkow ruled in my favor. “Without such information,” she wrote, “the public would be unable to supervise the individuals and institutions it has entrusted with the extraordinary authority to arrest and detain people against their will. With so much at stake, defendants simply cannot be allowed to operate in secrecy.”

The city immediately moved to stay her order pending appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. On appeal, my position was joined by a majority of the Chicago City Council and major media organizations.

In 2009, a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit overruled Lefkow in a harshly anti-press decision. She had erred, they ruled, in allowing me to intervene at all. They did not, however, reach the merits of the argument regarding public access to police disciplinary files.

A footnote in the opinion stated that their decision did not bar me from seeking the same documents under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Represented by Loevy & Loevy, the People’s Law Office, as well as the Mandel Clinic, we took the court up on the invitation. Over seven years, we waged a legal campaign that culminated in the 2014 decision of the Illinois Court of Appeals in Kalven v. Chicago, holding that documents relating to allegations of police misconduct are public information in Illinois.

Heat map of Chicago police misconduct allegations. Map: Invisible Institute

Citizens Police Data Project

Following the decision in Kalven v. Chicago, the Invisible Institute incorporated as a nonprofit organization, engaged in sustained fundraising, and staffed up, in order to respond to the historic opportunity presented by the release of information long hidden behind a wall of official secrecy.

In contrast to many news organizations that would have treated such a trove of information as proprietary and harvested it for stories, our commitment from the start was to make the information universally available to the public. In one sense, we could have fulfilled that commitment by posting Excel spreadsheets, but that would have only served a small number of users.

The court had articulated a principle: Police disciplinary records belong to the public. That principle, however, was not self-executing. The Invisible Institute undertook the task of operationalizing transparency. For the last few years, a team of programmers, designers, and data scientists, coordinated by my Invisible Institute colleague Rajiv Sinclair, has been pursuing that objective. The result is the Citizens Police Data Project.

Soon after the Kalven decision came down, we were confronted with a legal counterattack by the police unions — the Fraternal Order of Police representing rank-and-file officers and several other unions representing supervisory personnel. They sought to block the city from releasing the police disciplinary documents on the grounds that such a release would violate their contracts, which provide that all files related to investigations of misconduct will be destroyed five years after the date of the complaint. A judge sympathetic to the union position imposed a temporary injunction limiting the city to releasing police disciplinary data for the previous four years.

Constrained by the injunction, we launched a limited preview of CPDP in 2015. Almost immediately, journalists, researchers, and lawyers made use of the data for their purposes. Beyond its utility to particular sets of users, CPDP served as a biopsy of the system, a statistical portrait of impunity, and a demonstration of how the Chicago Police Department goes about not connecting the dots about patterns of human rights abuse they have the means to identify.

Two weeks after the launch, the city released the video of the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. In the political firestorm that ensued, CPDP provided critical context in the political firestorm that ensued, demonstrating with the police department’s own data how deficient the systems for investigating misconduct complaints are.

The impact of CPDP was not a matter of “big data” that promises to yield an algorithm for curbing police abuse. Rather, it resided precisely in its publicness. It served to disable the rhetorical use of official secrecy (“If you knew what we know … ”) and create the conditions for the ongoing debate about police reform in Chicago to be conducted with reference to a common body of evidence.

After a two-year legal battle, we ultimately prevailed over the police unions. Although it delayed release of the data we are making public today, that legal controversy also served to consolidate the precedent of the Kalven decision. We recognize, though, that this will be an ongoing struggle. We do not take the level of transparency that has been achieved for granted. We expect renewed legal and legislative attacks.

This litigation history has implications for efforts to achieve comparable transparency elsewhere, notably New York. For decades, the city of Chicago, the police department, and the police unions argued that various horrible consequences would ensue if officer names were made public — officers would be targeted, their families harassed, the security of police operations undermined, etc. In the three years since we made the first limited release of police disciplinary information, nothing of that nature has been reported.

The greatly expanded data set we release today powerfully corroborates three major patterns that emerged from the more limited data we released in 2015:

First, the data reveals a system pervaded by racial bias. Virtually anywhere you enter the data, you encounter sharp racial disparities. For example, those filing complaints are predominantly black, yet black people are dramatically underrepresented in cases of proven abuse. Perhaps most telling, racial disparities in the use of force have significantly increased over the last decade, even as Chicago’s black population has declined.

Second, excessive force complaints rarely result in discipline. Out of more than 8,700 excessive force claims from January 2007 to June 2016, investigators sustained only 1.5 percent of complaints. Nearly 74 percent of these complaints were filed by African-Americans.

Finally, it’s important to note that police abuse is a highly patterned phenomenon. Among officers who served at least a year between 2000 and 2016, 57 percent have fewer than five complaints, and 78 percent have fewer than 10. The 22 percent of officers who have 10 or more complaints account for 64 percent of all complaints during that period. Yet officers with the most complaints are less likely to be disciplined.

Articles by Rob Arthur and Andrew Fan published today describe other takeaways from the data. In the coming weeks, we will publish stories on individual officers and groups of officers that will demonstrate the power and utility of CPDP in the service of investigative reporting.

The expanded data set allows for new forms of analysis. It makes it possible to follow individual officers and cohorts of officers through their entire careers and do network analysis. In our excitement about these possibilities, it’s critically important to also recognize the limitations of the data — as the forensic statistician Patrick Ball puts it, “the silences in the data.” There is a large ghost phenomenon of individuals who feel they have had an abusive encounter with the police, but do not file a formal complaint. Recognizing the necessarily fragmentary nature of the data is the key to making effective use of it and developing strategies for investigating that which it does not reveal.

Central to the practice of the Invisible Institute is attention to the human context of the data. The patterns that emerge from the aggregate data are most illuminating when joined to other knowledge acquired through on-the-ground reporting. CPDP is thus best understood not only as a database but as a human rights archive — a collection of stories that Chicago residents, mostly from marginalized communities, told government officials in seeking redress for what they felt to be abuses of power. Every data point is a story.

Top photo: An interactive map showing police misconducts in Chicago.

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