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Photo: Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo

A Chicago investigative journalism unit seeks to strengthen communities and improve journalism, with a trove of Chicago Police Department data.

CHICAGO — In the spring of 2005, a group of Chicago police officers began terrorizing Diane Bond, a mother and public school janitor who lived at the Stateway Gardens housing project on the South Side of Chicago. Known as the Skullcap Crew, the officers ransacked her apartment, forced her to remove her clothes and expose herself for them (ostensibly to search for drugs), and demanded she watch as they beat a man seized from the building stairwell. They forced her son and his friends to beat the man on threat of jail, pocketed their stairwell victim’s money and held a gun to Bond’s head.

That was just the first attack.

Word got to Jamie Kalven, a journalist and human rights advocate working as a consultant to the Gardens’ resident council. In a vacant unit inside the housing project, Kalven, photographer Patricia Evans and technologist David Eads, produced a series of articles for Kalven’s online publication, The View from the Ground, detailing the Skullcap Crew’s abuses of both power and people. Working out of the Gardens, The View from the Ground wasn’t simply another digital magazine, it was “a human rights monitoring strategy: a vehicle for documenting conditions of life in abandoned communities.” The sources for Kalven’s story, “Kicking the Pigeon,” and the violence they experienced were all around him.

The Skullcap Crew terrorized Stateway Gardens for years. Bond eventually filed a civil suit, which led to Kalven filing his own lawsuit after learning that the Skullcap Crew’s misconduct records were private documents. Kalven v The City of Chicago, settled in 2014, made police misconduct records public, presenting a vast trove of data on the city’s police force and how they interact with the communities they are tasked with protecting and serving.

A year later, in 2015, journalism production company the Invisible Institute and the University of Chicago Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic launched the Citizens Police Data Project (CPDP), a searchable, actionable tool for navigating the records dating back to 1967.

“The way they are practicing data journalism is a model of how journalism can be more connected with the citizens and can really make an impact in society,”

This mountain of data contained information that could be absolutely crucial to understanding the relationship between Chicago’s police and its citizens. Rather than keep it exclusive, mining it for stories, the Invisible Institute made the database public.

“We believe this belongs to the public. And what we have assumed is a rare and interesting journalistic niche as curators of the information for the public,” Kalven said.

Making the end-all not exclusives and scoops, but public knowledge and empowerment is an unusual view beginning to gather momentum in the media world.

“There’s so many things I like about the Invisible Institute,” said Giannina Segnini, director of the master of science data journalism program at Columbia University. “It’s a combination of the best journalistic practices, in the sense that not only do they fight to have access to data … the other thing is, we journalists constantly demand transparency from public officials and corporations and everybody else, but we haven’t been historically really successful in being transparent ourselves.”

Not only does the Invisible Institute expand the scope of data available to the public, they also make it explorable.

“The way they are practicing data journalism is a model of how journalism can be more connected with the citizens and can really make an impact in society,” Segnini said.

According to Segnini, that model is helping to change both the practice and culture of journalism, establishing a new precedent of data sharing where once possible scoops were stashed away.

“It’s becoming more and more common,” Segnini said about publications and journalists sharing their data, “and that’s something to celebrate.”

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The View from the Ground was jokingly published under the auspices of the Invisible Institute, a name which has since become official. Supported primarily by grants and private donors, the Invisible Institute’s team of journalists, producers, technologists, photographers and artists produce articles, support publications and platforms—including the civic journalism lab City Bureau and the paper South Side Weeklyand curate the data contained in the Citizens Police Database Project. Tying all of their work together is the recognition of violence, often perpetrated at the state level, against people like Diane Bond.

“What happened to her has created a framework for us where, when we see human rights violated, we want to address it and do what we can to expose it through the power of information and transparency and data,” said Alison Flowers, an Invisible Institute journalist.

According to Kalven, roughly 65 percent of the Invisible Institute’s budget goes to the CPDP and related projects. The database includes officer identifications, the nature of the complaints, locations of incidents, and the result of the filing.

The database is used as a research tool not only by journalists and activists but by lawyers, other police officers and higher-ups within the police department as well.

CPDP data was crucial to Kalven’s four-part series in The Intercept, “Code of Silence,” as well as Flowers’ and Sarah Macaraeg’s Sidney Award-winning (and recognized on Twitter by Twista and The Wire’s David Simon) Chicago Reader article, which revealed 11 cases wherein police killed a civilian then pinned the murder on an accomplice. According to Flowers, the database was also utilized in the Campbell v City of Chicago civil suit, which sued the city, CPD and individual officers for police brutality and racial discrimination.

Kalven’s work on police misconduct also led him to a source in the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014. After police reported that the teenager was shot after acting erratically, and lunging at an officer while wielding a knife, a tipster let the reporter know that there was video of the incident. Kalven eventually found an eyewitness and forced the release of police dashcam footage showing multiple police on the scene had the situation under control. Officer Jason Van Dyke was the only cop on scene to open fire, shooting McDonald 16 times, unloading even as his body laid motionless on the ground. Van Dyke is facing first-degree murder charges.

Beyond civil suits and investigative exposés, anyone who has an encounter with a Chicago police officer can use the CPDP to see a snapshot of that cop’s history. Each and every data point is also, crucially, a moment in a person’s life, and often a terrible moment at that.

The goal of the project is to “operationalize transparency,” as Kalven terms it. Essentially, that means making the data usable by the public and easily put to the greater good. This is not without its challenges.

Data arrives in raw form. It’s often inconsistent from one filing to the next, contains errors and can be accumulated in such amounts, and with such little structure, as to be inscrutable. An entire team at the Invisible Institute was tasked with alleviating these problems, using code—available to the public via GitHub—to go from raw to refined data. The next challenge lies in making the database accessible and as easy to search as possible, testing strategies like a heat map or placing people within the data set on local high schoolers

“I think this is the pure essence of data, collaborative, investigative journalism in the public interest,” Segnini said. 

The objective is a counterbalance to what Kalven refers to as the “regime of not knowing,” the effort society puts into actively ignoring the issues around it. To David Eads, the technologist who was with Kalven during the Stateway Gardens days, the data journalism of the Invisible Institute—and his current employer, ProPublica Illinois—are missions with slightly different means to the same end: tearing that regime to the ground.

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