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It’s Difficult to Hold Police Accountable. A Misconduct Registry Could Change That.

Our nation needs a public record of police misconduct. This is what stands in the way — and the people determined to fight the establishment to build it

On Monday, House and Senate Democrats introduced a piece of legislation that, among other things, called for a national registry of police misconduct, which would open the doors to increased public scrutiny and more accountability of cops. It’s a battle that the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit in Chicago, has spent the last three decades fighting. According to Maira Khwaja, the Institute’s director of outreach, it has uncovered 247,150 allegations charged against Chicago police officers since 1988 — 56,574 of them related to the use of force — only 7 percent of which resulted in discipline. 

That information, however, was only available to the Institute for one reason: Back in the early 1990s, one of its founders, attorney Craig Futterman, took on the case of a woman named Diana Bond “who had been brutally assaulted by a crew of police officers known as the Skullcap Crew,” Khwaja says. 

Futterman found that the Skullcap Crew had a long record of police complaints. He asked journalist Jamie Kalven (another Institute founder) to intervene in order to make the records public. Kalven then filed a First Amendment case versus the city, and nearly two decades of legal battles later, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that all police misconduct records in the state would be public information. “That’s part of why Illinois has relatively, pretty-okay-accurate open records compared to a lot of other states,” Khwaja explains. 

Despite the court ruling in 2013, however, Khwaja says the Invisible Institute is still working to get all the records. “We have full data going back to 1988, and then a lot of the records going back to 1967,” she says. “But the city is still dragging its feet.”

In other words, it’s likely going to be a long process for the federal government to do the same.

Not to mention, the information “being public” doesn’t mean anything if it’s basically inaccessible to the public. “After the long legal battle and win, we realized that if people have to write a bunch of emails to get access to [the records], then they’re not very accessible,” Khwaja tells me. 

With that, a tiny team of three people within the Institute took on an enormous task: analyzing, inputting and parsing nearly all police records dating back to 1967, then creating a website that makes all of it easy to access and understand. Or as Khwaja puts it, making the records “truly open to the public.”

The work what would eventually be called the Citizens Police Data Project, or CPDP.

(Unfortunately, Democratic lawmakers didn’t have the same foresight; their recent bill merely states that “the Attorney General shall make the Registry available to the public,” so there’s a decent chance those “public” records will be hidden behind red tape and incoherent spreadsheets.) 

Again, none of this is easy. For the few police departments in the country that have publicly available misconduct databases, Khwaja says that data can be nearly impossible to interpret, let alone compile. “Each jurisdiction maintains its data differently, different things are public and different things are tracked. Plus, everything changes every few years with different reforms, leadership or changes in how they keep data.” 

In Chicago alone, she adds, “just the process of cleaning data — checking for redundancies, looking for gaps, trying to figure out what certain things mean — that in itself is very expensive.” 

To make things even more difficult, there’s no distinct identifier for each officer. “Badge numbers aren’t unique: They can get recycled the way jerseys do, or if your dad was a cop, you might want his badge number,” Khwaja explains. “So even in Chicago’s data, it was a challenge to figure out if an officer with a certain badge number was the same officer five years later with the same name and different badge number.” 

This, in turn, means it’s “very hard to track which officers get fired and move to a different place,” Khwaja says, additionally pointing out that this is the “biggest barrier to a national registry.” “It’s pretty easy for officers to be fired and move somewhere else to get a job,” she continues. Another issue: A lot of people don’t remember officer names in the first place. To help, a separate Chicago-based public database, Lucy Parsons Labs’ “OpenOversight,” matches officers’ faces with their names.

During recent protests, CPDP advertised the mobile version of the database so protesters on the ground could look up the police officers they were interacting with: 

Anecdotally, Khwaja says she’s seen a slight weakening of the “code of silence” among cops. “Secrecy is so deeply interwoven into many of the mechanisms of the institution, that it’s true that an officer standing next to his partner can witness misconduct and not report it because there’s a culture of staying on your team’s side,” she explains. But now a few officers have written to her anonymously, saying “they’ve looked at CPDP to notice that someone they’ve been assigned with has a certain record,” she says. 

Khwaja interprets that to mean that among the rank and file — those who aren’t necessarily outspoken critics or union leaders — “there’s a lot of cops who do think they should be able to report wrongdoing. And they could, but they’re certainly encouraged not to, so CPDP is helpful to them in terms of knowing misconduct, or being like, ‘Okay, it’s not just me noticing this officer’s misconduct.’”

Knowing their partner has been cited for misconduct previously also might be the very thing that gives them the confidence to file a report. And according to CPDP data, reports filed by fellow officers are “taken much more seriously, and are more often sustained, than reports made by citizens.” 

But at the moment, the main goal isn’t getting cops to participate, it’s getting everyone involved (especially as plans for a national registry unfold). “Honestly, we have a long way to go to get other cities to this level of transparency, but I know people are trying to in New York, L.A., Dallas and New Orleans,” Khwaja says. “You don’t have to be a FOIA mastermind to help; I wouldn’t even say I’m a FOIA expert. But the critical thing in our work is collaboration, whether you’re a lawyer, a journalist or just an average citizen.”