Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Chicago Reporter Keeps Churning Out Top Work

by Mark Hallett, Senior Program Officer, Journalism Program


Last Friday at a Chicago Headline Club event with some 350 in attendance, the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists unveiled another year’s worth of Lisagor awards—more than 100 of them. By our count, the Trib came away with 13, the Sun-Times eight, WBEZ six Crain’s and the Southtown Star four apiece. Topics ranged from military couples to immigration limbo, pension games to corruption in Cicero to criminals fleeing the country. Reading through the list of winners is truly inspiring. We’re lucky to have so much rich talent in the Chicago area.


Oh, and the Chicago Reporter, the nonprofit investigative outfit headed by Kimbriell Kelly and housed at 130-year-old Community Renewal Society, took eight. At McCormick, we’ve been supporters of the Reporter for many years, and are amazed at its sustained, inspired work. We thought we’d ask Angela Caputo, who was named in three of the Reporter’s awards, to walk us through a recent story.


In the current issue online, the feature story is “Abusing the Badge.” This nifty piece of reporting reveals that:
  • 1 in 4: The number of investigations of police misconduct opened by the Independent Police Review Authority in 2010 that are still open
  • $45.5 million: Total payments between January 2009 and November 2011 by the City of Chicago in damages
  • 91%: The percentage of lawsuits reviewed by the Independent Police Review Authority that ended without an investigation because they weren’t backed by a sworn affidavit

But perhaps most remarkably, the story identifies 140 “repeaters,” police officers who were named in at least two cases. They represent 1 percent of the entire force. And the story names names; as it turns out, 1/3 of this group of repeaters was named in 5 or more police misconduct suits in the past decade.


We asked Angela to lay out the story:
  • On timing and resources: "I started the police story in mid-February and we went to the printer April 14. I had one primary intern—a recent Medill grad, Yisrael Shapiro—working with me. A couple other interns chipped in an hour here and there."
  • On compiling data: "I started the project by compiling city settlement reports in an Excel file. My primary data set was a build out from that. The city reports include the case number related to each settlement, the damages paid by the city. Yisrael and I went into pacer to download most of the related files. I pulled others manually from the Cook County courthouses. In those court case files, we found the police officer’s names and the addresses where the alleged misconduct occurred. We logged all of that info into that main spreadsheet. I then used mapping software, Access and Excel to analyze it."
  • Analyzing multiple databases: "I also downloaded city payroll data to see which of the officers are still on the department’s payroll. I did the same with a database of police board rulings to see which of the 'repeaters' faced discipline."
  • Requesting information through FOIA: "Also, through FOIA, I got some great data from the Independent Police Review Authority. They gave me two sets of files—one data set of all complaints and another of closed investigations--which I joined in Access then analyzed in Excel. I also used FOIA to get police reports from CPD to learn the nitty-gritty about some of the allegations. I also FOIA’d the state’s attorney’s office to see how many police officers are facing prosecution in the criminal courts. I looked those up manually at the courthouse as well."
  • On what surprised her the most: "That a vast majority of the allegations behind police misconduct settlements are never investigated. In 91 percent of the complaints forwarded from the civil courts to the Independent Police Review Authority, an investigation was never opened. Where’s the oversight?"

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