November 20, 2015

Law School, nonprofit release CPD complaint database after long litigation

The University of Chicago Law School’s Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project (PAP) partnered with the Invisible Institute, a South Side nonprofit, to release a database of Chicago Police Department (CPD) complaints to the public. PAP faculty and students helped conduct the 13 years of litigation and Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA) requests that led to the creation of the Citizens Police Data Project (CPDP).

Craig Futterman, a clinical law professor at the Law School, worked for years on various cases related to the production of the CPDP. He pursued litigation against the city in order to obtain the records of decades’ worth of police complaints. He was helped by a team of law students at PAP, which he founded as part of the Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic in Fall 2000.

Jamie Kalven, a journalist and activist with the Invisible Institute, spearheaded the initiative. According to Chaclyn Hunt, a civil rights attorney who directs the Youth/Police Project at the Invisible institute, there was over a decade of collaboration between Futterman and Kalven.

Kalven became interested in police brutality and accountability while reporting on tenant experiences from Stateway Gardens, a large public housing project that has since been demolished. In the summer of 2000 he met Futterman, who had recently moved to the city to take up a position at the law school. When Futterman started his clinic at the law school, his students immediately started working with the Invisible Institute out of a vacant apartment. The collaboration is ongoing.

In 2003, one of the tenants at Stateway Gardens, Diane Bond, was allegedly assaulted by a group of police officers. Futterman filed a civil lawsuit against the officers for Bond in 2004. During the case, Futterman requested access to the complaints against repeat offenders on the force. Although he was able to obtain them, they were under a protective order that barred him from releasing them to the public. The case was settled out of court in 2007, although the City admitted no wrongdoing.

In an effort to make those complaints public, Kalven intervened as a journalist on behalf of the public, and Kalven’s lawyers succeeded in overturning the protective order. However, the court’s decision was soon overruled.

Kalven and his lawyers, now including Futterman, continued with their case in 2009 after Kalven’s Freedom of Information Act requests to the CPD were denied. In 2014, they won. In Kalven v. the City of Chicago, the court ruled that “the documents listing the police officers with the most complaints…and the documents related to completed investigations into allegations of misconduct against five officers…were subject to disclosure.” Based on that list of names, Futterman and Kalven’s other lawyers took advantage of FOIA laws and obtained the complaint data that they needed to create the database.

“Basically, once we received the ruling in 2014, we began crafting a FOIA request, and the answer to that request became the current database. Building the tools to enable citizens to access the data and make it useful required a tremendous effort and coordination across technical, legal, and journalistic practices,” Hunt wrote in an e-mail.

Futterman knows that there is still work to be done. After his victory, police unions are fighting to have records more than a few years old destroyed, meaning thousands of records from 1967 onward could be lost.

“If we…don’t act to change the law, to make sure that police misconduct records are not destroyed, we’re at great risk of all of these records going up in smoke. There’s lots more to be done,” he said.

While Futterman works to keep the records extant and public, the Invisible Institute will continue updating its database frequently, accepting suggestions, and looking into discrepancies.

“For the toolkit to be useful, it must be an expanding resource that facilitates connections and resources between lawyers, journalists, researchers and citizens,” Hunt wrote.

Futterman noted that the process has been a learning experience for his students, who get to work on cases at the PAP clinic.

“Where does the role of litigation as one part of lawyering fit into lawyering more broadly and work to change the world? Litigation—and this a great example of it, and this is what students involved with the project are learning—is a very powerful tool but not the end-all be-all.”

Futterman recognizes that the creation of the database was partially a result of a decade of litigation, but he claims that the only way to ultimately create change is to have people who care about the issue use the data provided.

“It is an incredibly powerful tool, fundamentally opening up the police department to the public… It’s a transfer of power from the state and police department to the public. But it doesn’t by itself automatically remedy sexism or racism in the police department. It doesn’t automatically address matters of police abuse in black and brown communities. It doesn’t magically get rid of the cover of silence…But it does create the conditions for each and every one of those things to happen,” he said.

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