How an activist journalist’s commitment to a poor Chicago community led to a big FOIA win (UPDATED)

After a years-long fight, city agrees that records of police misconduct complaints will be public

jamiekalven.jpgJamie Kalven in the study of his home. (Photo by Patricia Evans)

UPDATE, 7/31: This week, the City of Chicago released the misconduct complaint records sought by Kalven, and he has posted them online here. The release of the records was covered Wednesday in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times.

Among the documents is a list of the names of 662 Chicago police officers with more than 10 misconduct complaints between May 2001 and May 2006, produced by the city in the course of discovery for Diane Bond’s lawsuit. Of the five individual officers named as defendants in that case, four were on the list. 

When he posted a document online Wednesday, Kalven also published a statement that reads, in part:

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….

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. 

Original story published July 22 appears below: 

CHICAGO, IL — Ten years ago, a school janitor named Diane Bond brought a civil rights lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department. Complaints get lodged against the police by the dozens every year, but this one stood out: Bond gave a ghastly account of alleged police misconduct—assaults, sexual and racial abuse, threats to plant false evidence, among others—perpetrated by a group of officers from a roving gang tactical unit.

Known as the “Skullcap Crew” for their signature knit caps, the officers had for years tormented Bond and other residents of the Stateway Gardens, a public housing development that occupied eight crime-plagued blocks of Chicago’s South Side. But no one wrote about her case when it was filed.

Then, in July 2005, Jamie Kalven—an independent journalist who doubled as a community organizer at Stateway—began publishing a string of posts titled, “Kicking the Pigeon.” The series, which grew to 17 installments, detailed Bond’s allegations, the progress of her lawsuit, and broader questions surrounding police misconduct and accountability. To round out his reporting, Kalven sued the city to gain access to records of the police misconduct complaints compiled for Bond’s case.

In the years since, much has changed. The Skullcap unit has been disbanded. Stateway’s high-rises have been torn down as part of the city’s radical plan to reshape public housing. And the Bond case itself was settled out of court, with the city paying $150,000.

But one thing remained: Kalven’s fight for the police records. Until recently, that is.

In March, a state appeals court handed Kalven an unlikely victory, casting aside the city’s insistence that the records were part of a confidential disciplinary process, and that releasing them would violate the officers’ privacy.

The city vowed to appeal the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court—only to reverse course last week, when it agreed to release so-called “complaint register” files in response to state FOIA requests. “Ultimately we concluded that … it will serve a greater public good to allow these investigations to be subject to open records laws,” city attorney Steve Patton said in a statement.

The move represents a major policy shift for a city still reeling from its long, unproud history of turning a blind eye to bad cops. The change has been welcomed by the Chicago media establishment, much of which joined the push to open the records near the end. “The belief that police officers won’t be held accountable for misconduct undermines public confidence in the department,” declared an editorial about the news in the Chicago Tribune, adding, “It’s a huge problem in the city’s most violent neighborhoods.”

It’s a change that would not have happened if not for Kalven—and a transparency fight Kalven would not have taken on, had he not been immersed for years in one of Chicago’s poorest and most abandoned communities and seen what the police impunity really looked like.

Now, on the other side of that fight, Kalven believes the city’s new policy can set the stage for real reform in police practices. It will allow outsiders to see past officials’ willful ignorance and find patterns of abuse by analyzing records. “One of our big criticisms over the years has been that it’s almost as if [officials] actively try not to know things that are within their power to know,” he says. “They can’t do that now.”

‘I am standing here. This is what I see.’

For Kalven, the winding path that led to his legal victory dates back to 1993, when he and other community organizers began gathering regularly at Stateway to mourn the victims of urban violence.

Formally called the Vigil Against Violence, the gathering took place at sunset on the first Sunday of each month. Participants read the names of those killed on the city’s South Side in tribute. Soon, a diverse group of “neighbors” joined in, candles in hand, and kept the vigil going for five years.

When it was over, Kalven kept finding other reasons to stay at Stateway. He began a project to transform the area’s vacant lots into gardens and parks. He founded the Neighborhood Conservation Corps to provide social services and job training. Eventually, he became the technical adviser to Stateway’s resident council.

After a while, Kalven was considered a Stateway fixture himself. “I was deeply, deeply part of the community in the way that it’s hard to imagine I ever would have achieved strictly as a writer,” he says.

Throughout this time, Kalven kept tabs on Skullcap. He collected stories of alleged abuses, including Bond’s, and spent several years investigating them. He tried, often without success, to get other media outlets interested, so he set up his own website, “The View From The Ground,” and began writing about what he found.

“The orientation of The View From The Ground was really shaped by what I saw as a radical disconnect between the policy discourse about public housing and the observable realities on the ground,” he says. “What I did was to report to the best of my ability with a stance that, ‘I am standing here. I am in the middle of my subject matter. And this is what I see.’”

Reducing poor communities to a problem

The View was also born in part from Kalven’s growing frustration with how public housing issues were being portrayed in the media. “So much of the reporting was terrible,” he says. “And the folklore around public housing was so strong that nobody for years could write ‘Stateway Gardens’ or ‘Robert Taylor Homes’ without putting ‘notorious’ or ‘infamous’ as an adjective beforehand.”

Kalven did lend a helping hand whenever reporters visited him at Stateway, often acting as a fixer. As the final demolition of Stateway approached, Kalven frequently toured the last remaining high-rise with reporters. As they walked, some residents inevitably came up to Kalven to tell him about the latest police abuse they had suffered.

“I thought that would’ve been the single most significant thing you could write about the last building of Stateway—the dirty cops were still coming around to pick the bones!” he says. “But that didn’t fit with the template of the story they were doing.”

To be sure, there was—and is—good coverage to be found. A 2004 story by CJR, for instance, singled out the work of Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, who had devoted two dozen columns to telling multidimensional stories of people navigating the closing of the Cabrini-Green development.

But, as Schmich told CJR then, even ambitious coverage of poor communities can go wrong. “We bite off a huge project every few years, and that has the effect of reducing the poor to a problem,” she said. “Then they disappear largely until the next big project.”

Natalie Moore, the South Side bureau reporter for the Chicago Public Radio, told me something similar when I reached out to her last week. “There’s often a lack of consistent community voices in the media,” said Moore, who has headed the bureau since it opened in 2009. “When we do hear from folks on the ground, it’s a reaction to something bad happening in the community, like a shooting. It’s usually not, ‘Let’s just go out into the communities and cover the issues that people are talking about there.’”

Records of alleged misconduct, under seal

While he pushed on writing for his site, Kalven kept his organizing work on a parallel track. Out of this work came a partnership with Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who founded a civil rights clinic focused on police accountability.

At Kalven’s suggestion, Futterman and his students began examining some of Stateway residents’ cases. Their target became clear right away: Skullcaps. “What struck me was that they walked around knowing that nothing was ever going to happen to them for their behavior—they were able to do things with utter impunity,” Futterman says.

In time, Futterman helped a handful of residents file lawsuits—including Bond, who sued in April 2004. During discovery, in order to establish a pattern of abuse, Futterman sought records of misconduct complaints and disciplinary actions from the police department. He received an array of material, including a list of 662 officers who had accumulated 10 or more complaints against them from 2001 to 2006. But he couldn’t share any of it with Kalven because the material was covered by a protective order.

So, just before Bond reached her settlement in 2007, Kalven made his first bid for the records in a legal venue, asking a federal judge to lift the order.

The judge, Joan Lefkow of the Northern District of Illinois, agreed. While acknowledging the privacy concerns, she ruled that the information had “a distinct public character, as it relates to the defendant officers’ performance of their official duties.

“Without such information,” she continued, “the public would be unable to supervise the individuals and institutions it has entrusted with the extraordinary authority to arrest and detain persons against their will. With so much at stake, defendants simply cannot be permitted to operate in secrecy.”

The case was quickly appealed by the city, so Kalven didn’t actually get the records. But Lefkow’s ruling thrust Bond’s case into the media spotlight—fully three years after it was filed.

A footnote you could drive a truck through

The publicity helped Kalven gain new allies: 28 Chicago City Council members—more than half of the full body—who were looking for the same material. On paper, at least, these aldermen were tasked to oversee the police department, but their request had been rebuffed—with a blessing from then-Mayor Richard M. Daley—by the city’s law department.

Powerful media outlets—including The Associated Press; the Chicago Sun-Times; the Tribune; the Chicago Reader; The New York Times; the Copley, Gannett, and Lee chains, as well as the Illinois Press Association—collectively filed an amicus brief.

Two years went by before the appeals court finally weighed in. When it did, a panel of judges overturned Lefkow on procedural grounds. Noting that Bond’s case had been settled by the time Lefkow considered Kalven’s petition, the judges found Kalven had lacked standing to intervene.

But the opinion’s footnotes contained this passage: “The protective order does not interfere with Kalven’s ability to try to obtain the documents he seeks directly from the City under the Illinois FOIA.”

Kalven and Futterman seized on it—“We took them up on the invitation and drove a truck through that footnote,” is how Kalven puts it—and launched a FOIA process. Their request led to the state appeals court’s ruling in their favor in March—and, finally, to the city’s decision last week to drop the appeal.

When all is said and done, Futterman estimates that Kalven’s FOIA fight, which he and others have taken up on a pro bono basis, has burned through nearly half a million dollars in legal fees. (As part of the settlement, the parties agreed to seek to recoup only $200,000 of it.)* “Most independent journalists, unless they are independently super wealthy, couldn’t do this,” he says. “And that’s part of what the city was counting on.”

In the end, the city did the right thing in terms of transparency, but the fight for real reform in police practices isn’t over yet, Kalven says. 

“We now have the process to make the ongoing reform possible,” he says. “Now it’s really up to us as journalists, as citizens, as community groups to make use of this powerful tool we have.”

*This sentence and the one preceding it have been corrected to clarify the estimated legal cost.

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Rui Kaneya is CJR's correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. A former investigations editor at The Chicago Reporter, Kaneya was a recipient of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Minority Fellowship and the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Minority Fellowship in Urban Journalism. He has received numerous journalism awards, among them the Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists’ Salute to Excellence National Media Award. Follow him on Twitter @ruikaneya. Tags: , , , , , , ,