This story is over 5 years old.


A New Database Reveals Just How Rarely Chicago Cops Get Punished

Data gathered from lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests paint an ugly picture of police accountability in the Windy City, with whites getting their complaints addressed far more often than blacks.

Diane Bond. Photo by Patricia Evans

"It's like a nightmare," she said. "All I did last night was cry."

Those were the words of 48-year-old Diane Bond to Chicago journalist Jamie Kalven in April 2003. At the time, Bond was a single mother of three living in one of the city's last public housing high-rises, and Kalven was reporting for an online publication out of a vacant unit. During their conversation, Bond confided that a group of tactical police officers had assaulted her and ransacked her home the previous evening.


Because of their reputations for brutality, these officers were known on the streets as "The Skullcap Crew." At Kalven's urging, Bond filed an official complaint against the officers.

Neither Kalven nor Bond could have expected what happened next.

Bond filed a civil rights lawsuit and won a settlement in 2007—the city admitted no wrongdoing, of course—and a watershed court decision in Kalven's name came down last year. In that case, Kalven v. City of Chicago, police misconduct records previously kept sealed became public record.

Related: City of Silence

"Ms. Bond wanted more than anything to prevent officers from hurting others the way that they hurt her," said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who represented Bond. "We had to find a way, and Jamie Kalven stepped up to lead this fight."

The coup of long-embattled information has now given rise to the largest known repository of police disciplinary records, a new online data tool that launched this week in Chicago. Dubbed the Citizens Police Data Project, it aims to serve as a national model of accountability for law enforcement. Amid a national push to open up policing to more scrutiny—23 states still keep police disciplinary complaints confidential—the project puts Chicago near the front of the pack when it comes to documenting how cops avoid punishment over misconduct complaints.

"In Diane Bond's case, she endured a series of horrific abuses by the hands of the same officers," said Samantha Liskow, a civil rights attorney who served on the legal team in both Bond's suit and the Kalven case. "That's the kind of thing that data can blow the lid off of."


The Citizens Police Data Project houses more than 56,000 misconduct complaints for more than 8,500 police officers. The interactive tool is a product of a collaboration between the Invisible Institute, a production company on the South Side of Chicago—where, full disclosure, I work as a journalist—and the University of Chicago Law School's Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. The database includes three pools of information garnered through Freedom of Information (FOIA) and civil rights litigation for dates ranging from 2001 to 2015.

As you might expect, the data shows a significant pattern of racial bias, with black Chicagoans accounting for over 60 percent of total complaints against cops, and less than 25 percent of sustained—or not dismissed—complaints. Less than 3 percent of allegations lead to disciplinary action, with even lower rates for officers charged with high numbers of complaints.

Other revelations from the newly released data: Punishments for rogue cops are not aligned with the seriousness of the offense. The average discipline for administrative violations, such as having secondary employment, was 16.5 days. Meanwhile, of 40 officers accused of sexual assault, just one was fired, seven resigned, and two were suspended—for a matter of days.

The data also shows the majority of officers—82 percent of the total force—receive only zero to four complaints over the course of their law enforcement careers. Where the bulk of the alleged misconduct occurs, however, is among "repeaters," those officers with more than ten complaints, who represent more than 10 percent of the Chicago Police Department and yet receive 30 percent of all complaints—four times the amount as the rest of the force.


"What police officers do on the job is a crucially public function. How they behave has huge importance to the lives of many citizens," Liskow said. "Residents of certain neighborhoods where abuse is rampant completely lose faith in the department."

But Kalven hopes that this new data project does not further disillusion or disenfranchise affected communities. Rather, he seeks to inspire them to participate in the process of civic accountability by requesting and sharing records and reporting their experiences, as the Invisible Institute has done through its human rights documentation project, Youth and Police.

"Transparency doesn't happen on its own," Kalven said. "It's up to us as citizens to make it happen and address abuses when they occur. Information is critical to our ability to do that."

The data project is growing as more records become public, but the police union has waged its own legal fight to block public access to the full archives of Chicago police disciplinary records. Earlier this year, the city agreed to turn over its list of misconduct complaints for all officers, dating back to 1967, but an injunction secured by the Fraternal Order of Police has barred officials from releasing all but the last four years of data. The Invisible Institute filed an amicus brief in support of the City's position to release the records, arguing they are critical to charting the path to police reform in Chicago.

"We're trying to prevent a bonfire of records," Futterman said. "These records document a history of police torture; they reveal patterns of police abuse, and they save innocent peoples' lives."

Follow Alison Flowers on Twitter.