A massive database of complaints against Chicago police has been published. With 55,000 rows of data it provides an unprecedented and historic look into how the City of Chicago polices its communities and its officers. The city fought long and hard to keep the information secret.
The legal battle over the complaints started in the 1990s when Jamie Kalven, a quixotic journalist, writer and social worker, started spending time in Stateway Gardens.
Kalven had an unofficial office in a ground floor apartment in the building. Now, Kalven looks at the new buildings and a park with a curving walking path and long prairie grasses.
“This is not the community I worked in,” he says. “I wish it well but it’s something else.”
Kalven has long been known as a crusader in this neighborhood. It was here that he first witnessed policing that was far different than he was used to as a white middle-class guy.
“It would be just the most casual abuse of, you know, a policeman having pulled his car right onto the sidewalk, again a kind of act of contempt, with a PA system making an announcement to all you hoodrats in the buildings,” Kalven says.
First-hand accounts of beatings
Kalven says he’d see police beat people. He’d hear stories from young men still bleeding. And it was all so commonplace he figured there had to be a way to gather proof that this was happening. Craig Futterman proved crucial for that task.
Futterman is a law professor at the University of Chicago. His students started spending time in Jamie Kalven’s office in Stateway Gardens, documenting police abuse. Eventually Futterman filed several lawsuits against police, including a lawsuit on behalf of Diane Bond, a 49-year-old public school janitor.
Bond alleged that a group of officers repeatedly broke into her home, where they forced her to undress and they wrecked some of her belongings, including religious icons. Futterman says the police also brought an African American neighbor into her apartment and forced her son to punch him.
“And they had the kid, this kid was like maybe 16, 17 years old at the time, beat up this older middle-aged man while they just laughed and looked on for their amusement and then they left,” Futterman says. “I mean, it’s just pure sadism.”
The City of Chicago settled Bond’s lawsuit in 2007, though admitted no wrongdoing. If the case had gone to trial Futterman planned to prove that the Chicago Police Department was responsible for the cops’ bad behavior because the department failed to discipline them. As part of discovery Futterman had gotten police records for all officers who racked up 10 or more complaints. He’d seen that some officers had dozens and dozens of complaints and no discipline. All that information was under a court seal, and with the case settled, there would be no public trial and all those disciplinary records would remain secret.
‘My hands are tied’
“We got the information under a court protective order,” Futterman says. “We didn’t know what it was going to show until we actually analyzed it and then what we saw—that’s what was incredibly shocking, and then that’s when we had this information and I felt like, oh my gosh, my hands are completely tied behind my back. We knew it. Not allowed to share it.”
That kicked off another seven years of litigation for Futterman, who sued to make the information public. Kalven acted as his client. They won the legal battle, and they’re publishing those complaints on a searchable website today.
One of Futterman’s law students, Wudi Wu, has spent months going through the 55,000 rows of complaint data. Before law school he was a consultant who analyzed large data sets to save struggling companies.
“I have a number of years of quantitative analysis experience with Excel and a lot of other data work,” Wu says.
Four years of the data includes 27,000 complaints. Many are simply thrown out for a variety of bureaucratic reasons, leaving 10,000 complaints.
“So you’ve got about two-thirds that are just completely gone, which could be valid complaints, could be invalid complaints, but it’s sort of a vast drop in the number right away, which is striking. And then of the 10,000 only 700 are proven in the department’s eyes. And then of that 700 maybe only 80 …have a punishment for the officer of anything over a week of suspension,” Wu says.
From 27,000 complaints to 80 punishments
So he says 27,000 complaints are whittled down to only 80 cases with significant punishment.
Wu says when discipline is handed down, officers who violate internal departmental procedures get heavier punishments than officers who violate the constitutional rights of citizens.
For example, he says when officers take a second job without notifying the department, they get an average suspension of 16.5 days. And when they illegally arrest someone? 2.3 days.
“It’s false imprisonment,” Wu says. “You’re literally in jail when you shouldn’t have to be, and the police agree. The police department agrees … and you’re getting two days of punishment for the cop. You can arrest who you want and nothing’s going to happen to you.”
The police complaint files include information on race as well. Wu says the majority of the complaints are filed by black people. Only 20 percent are filed by white people. But of the cases that are sustained? The cases where the police department decides, ‘yeah, that really happened,’ 60 percent of those cases have white victims.
“If you give someone the proposition that 60 percent of all victims of police abuse are white, I think you’d have a lot of trouble selling that to people,” Wu says. “And that’s sort of a lot of the insights that we’re drawing from this is—it looks really bad. We’d love to have a plausible explanation for this, but so much of it looks bad we don’t really know what a plausible explanation would be.”
For the last few weeks WBEZ has asked for explanations from the police department’s press office. We haven’t gotten any information except for one chart saying the police received 50 percent fewer complaints in 2015 than in 2011.
In court filings and arguments in the past few years the department has admitted it isn’t using its complaint data to identify potentially problematic cops. So there are cops who get 50, 60, 70 complaints and little to no discipline.
Futterman says the Chicago Police Department could identify problematic patterns if they wanted to.
“The problem is they’re not looking and that is, it’s not a broken system, it’s willful blindness,” Futterman says.
WBEZ has repeatedly put Futterman’s assertion to a police department spokesman, but gotten no answers.
Kalven plans to update and publicize police complaint records every six months on a website called the Citizens Police Data Project.
So even if the Chicago Police Department doesn’t analyze these complaints, the public can.
Robert Wildeboer is a WBEZ criminal and legal affairs reporter. Follow him at @robertwildeboer.