Chicago police misconduct files made public

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After a long legal battle between the Chicago Police Department and an independent journalist, a series of police misconduct investigation files were released to the public Wednesday, July 30.

The files cover the period of 2001 through 2008 and contain the names of 662 Chicago officers who accumulated repeated complaints of abuse.

Jamie Kalven, founder of the non-profit journalistic organization The Invisible Institute focuses on bringing forward controversial issues of the city into everyday conversations among its residents.

His statement on his organization’s website explains, “The projects of the Invisible Institute cohere around the central themes of visibility and place. We seek to enlarge the sphere of permissible discourse about controversial issues by resisting the that disappear certain individuals, populations, and places.”

In 2005, Kalven reported Stateway Gardens, a high-rise public housing development that has since been demolished. Kalven witnessed the vast amount of police violence that occurred there on a daily basis.

“I witnessed and was told about a great deal of police abuse of varying degrees of disparity. And what was really most striking to me was the everydayness of it; you know, it wasn’t just occasional and intentional departure from the norm, it pretty much was the norm,” Kalven recalled. “There were particular crews of officers who were really actively corrupt, actively brutal, openly racist.”

With the administrative headquarters of the Chicago Police Department only blocks away from the violence, Kalven questioned the conditions that existed institutionally which allowed officers to abuse citizens with complete impunity.

His experiences at the Stateway Gardens led him to inquire about police records of how investigations of police abuse are handled.

“For me, it really started with what I was observing on the street. There’s an important word in this kind of civil rights work and it’s impunity, meaning the ability to act without fear of punishment. I really witnessed impunity and what it looks like up close and on the ground and that’s what set this whole process in motion for me.”

After the civil rights case Bond v. Utreras arose out of Kalven’s reporting at the south side housing development, Kalven formed a partnership with University of Chicago law professor and attorney Craig Futterman.

Focused on police accountability, Futterman was able to obtain the complaints and disciplinary actions of the Chicago Police Department misconduct cases, but the files were under protective order and could not be shared with Kalven.

Kalven requested the documents get removed from the protective order. Judge Joan Lefkow granted the request, but a higher court overruled her decision. Through the state Court of Appeals, Kalven prevailed in 2009 and the documents were to be released.

Later that year, Kalven filed a Freedom of Information request with the state requesting the release of the files of police abuse. The Chicago Police Department denied his request which prompted Kalven to file a suit.

After seven years, the Kalven v. Chicago Police Department case was finally settled Monday, March 14,. Kalven was able to obtain and share the misconduct files.

“The real significance of the case is now you can get those kinds of documents. Any journalist can; any citizen can; any lawyer can. The door has been opened to a level of transparency that never existed before in this city. This is really just the beginning, in terms of being able to really diagnose how the system works and could work better.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel commented about victory in the case to the Associated Press stating, “it’s imperative to build trust and partnership between residents and the police,” and the release of the files “is a step forward in that effort.”

The mayor’s statement pleased Kalven and felt that it touched on “a truly fundamental issue that is often overlooked…. The city’s willingness to abide by the decision is also significant and is to be commended.”

Another batch of materials is to be released sometime this month consisting of the investigative files of the five officers who were the defendants in the Bond v. Utreras case.

“For me, what’s really exciting now is after years of debating with the city about official secrecy, we’ve now pushed past that and we can engage in real problem solving. We can really be talking about what’s working, what’s not, what could work better and that feels like significant progress,” Kalven believes, “We have really been empowered now to really monitor now if these systems work. They are now incentives for the city to do much more rigorous investigations.”

With many of the officers listed in the flies still on the force, Kalven intends to pursue more recent files from the police department containing police investigation records of the officers who have collected the most misconduct complaints. He feels strongly that there is a lot of work to be done in rebuilding the credibility and legitimacy of the police force and that continuing this process will bring reform.

“I would emphasize that it is really a process, and you know, it’s not self executing. Just because this decision exists, doesn’t mean good things will happen. It’s really now up to us as citizens and as journalists to use the tools we now have.”